Do you know who helped grow your favourite snacks? Meet the Pollinator Pack.
From the avocado on your morning toast to the almond milk in your flat white, many of your favourite foods have a secret: they were made possible by the efforts of pollinators. These unseen workers have a huge impact on our food systems. Whether it’s fleets of managed honeybee hives working overtime in almond or apple orchards, or native birds, bats, flies and bugs helping to bulk up the flowers in your garden, pollinators of all stripes have a role to play in helping our planet thrive—and helping you get the most variety at the grocery store.
The Bee MVP: European Honeybees
Honeybees get a lot of hype as the most prized pollinators—and with good reason. Much of what you find in the fruit and veggie aisle at your local supermarket —apples and pears, blueberries, cherries, mangoes, melons, and even zucchini—just wouldn’t be possible without a mammoth effort from these bees. While (as the name suggests) they’re not native to Australia or New Zealand, they’re responsible for pollinating many of the fruits, legumes and even vegetables that we enjoy on a regular basis—contributing to as much as 65% of all agricultural product types grown in Australia.
Many commercially maintained hives of bees take a regional tour each year to various orchards and farms, working their pollinator magic to boost production of produce. And in many cases, those “boosts” are big. In the instance of Australian cherry production, for example, cherry trees pollinated by European honeybees have been found to yield over 17 times more cherries than those that were kept caged off from honeybees.
What makes this type of bee so well-suited to taking its pollination power on the road? Honeybees are well-adapted to their work as pollen transporters, both with the fine hair that covers their bodies and the ‘baskets’ they use to carry pollen back to the hive for future use. In addition, their physical size and shape make them fit for many types of crops, unlike larger pollinators (such as birds) that would run the risk of damaging plants in the process.
And they’re prolific workers. Honeybees are known to forage even in poor weather conditions—and a single honeybee can travel as far as 12 kilometers from its hive in search of nectar and pollen. But honeybees don’t just help increase yields when it comes to fruits. For so-called “oil seed” crops, such as sunflower or canola, honeybee pollination can actually increase the yield and therefore the amount of oil that these plants produce.
All The Support, None Of The Sting: Native Stingless Bees
But just because European Honeybees have long been the poster child for pollination, doesn’t mean that native insects aren’t pulling their weight. In fact, a 2013 global study found that wild insects helped improve fruit yields almost twice as much as European honeybees—but the best results of all came from the two populations working together. The takeaway? Creating enticing environments for native pollinators, such as Australia and New Zealand’s many species of stingless bees, can have far-reaching benefits—not just for boosting biodiversity, but for our farmers and food producers, too.
Making sure native bees are thriving where they’re needed most can take a bit of effort, however. In partnership with Western Sydney University (WSU), Bayer is doing important research to support a wide variety of native pollinator populations and ensuring there are enough floral resources to support them. But smaller efforts by individuals can be equally impactful. Native stingless bees can easily be attracted to orchards and farmlands through the addition of “forage strips,” or areas of native flowers planted on the borders of fields so that bees and other pollinators have more food and nesting sites. And as an added benefit, these strips themselves help preserve biodiversity of plants, which in turn supports a whole host of other living things beyond our high-priority pollinators. The result is a more vibrant, diverse ecosystem of flora and fauna—as well as a little hike in productivity from having all those bees nearby.
Not Your Average Housefly: Hoverflies
Similar in appearance to bees, hoverflies are tiny insects that deserve their day of recognition in the pollinator world. Categorised as “incidental” pollinators, they transfer pollen from plant to plant as it attaches to the hairs on their bodies. Because of their small size (up to 1.0 cm), they aren’t able to transfer as much pollen as honeybees, but they compensate for this by taking more trips to different flowers than honeybees do. Not just handy for the pollination of crops like avocados, they also snack on common pests like aphids, making them an asset to any garden—and helping protect plant biodiversity from these harmful bugs, in turn.
A Biodiverse Bunch Of Agile, Adaptive Animals: Honorable Pollinator Mentions
There’s much more to the pollinator universe than bees and other bugs. In fact, a whole host of birds, reptiles and even mammals play an important part when it comes to pollination—though they’re not always as productive as their minuscule counterparts (especially when it comes to the agricultural products we all enjoy).
Nonetheless, they’re a critical part of our environmental landscape. Little red flying foxes are key in the pollination of eucalypt forests, which in turn serve as a critical habitat for some of Australia’s most cherished wildlife. While many types of bats help out in the pollination effort, little red flying foxes are known for covering the most ground in Australia’s interior.
But they’re not the only eucalypt-loving pollinators out there. Colorful birds such as honeyeaters and many species of lorikeets are also fans of eucalypt trees and help propagate this important plant, as well as many types of native shrubs and flowers. While birds can be prolific pollinators in their own rights, they need more nutrients in order to be attracted—which explains why they largely pollinate tropical plants with bright colors and syrupy nectars.
But for all their choosiness about which plants to pollinate, they’re an important part of the landscape. Studies suggest that they may be more resilient than insect pollinators, especially in instances of severe weather or unpredictable flowering seasons. In addition, these birds can help protect plants from common pests, helping preserve biodiversity further.
Though they may not be top-of-mind when you’re snacking on a handful of nuts in between meetings, or enjoying a mango smoothie after a workout, pollinators of all kinds represent a key step in the process of growing the fruits and vegetables we all enjoy. And it’s not just the ones you’ve heard of, like the popular European honeybee. There’s a whole host of pollinator species out there, each with their own adaptations and skills that make them well-suited for helping pollen reach its destination.
Whether it’s wildflowers along the road, exotic blooms in your garden, or apples in an orchard, plants have the greatest odds of success when they live in a world that’s populated by a great range of pollinators. To have the healthiest ecosystem—and food system—possible, it’s our responsibility to help protect and sustain a breadth of biodiversity. Because in nature, as in the grocery store, variety is the spice of life.
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