I've known it's about the birds and the bees, but when it comes to the topic of pollination, I've been woefully in the dark beyond the basic understanding that Something Pollen-ish meets up with Something Plant-ish to make More Plants, and that the "birds and the bees" are somewhat critical to the pollen transfer thereof.
After some reading, I'm going to boil it down to the simple facts, for myself, of what happens during pollenation.
Here's the Big P as I now understand it:
1. Hold onto your hats. Remember pollen? That stuff that drifts through the air in record counts during certain times of the year, much to the irritation of noses everywhere, and to the prosperity of allergists? It appears that pollen is the equivalent of plant sperm. Apparently, the male part of a plant releases pollen, and when joined with the female part of the plant which contains the egg, you have both sex cells joined in fertilization. So, when we're sneezing during hayfever season, we can rest assured those pollen drifts are a whole lot of plant macho going on.
2. Pollination = Plant fertilization via the above-mentioned process. Cha-cha-cha!
3. Pollination/Fertilization of plants is what accounts for the making of new Seeds and Fruits. Which is good...reproduction and FOOD for man and beast. According to Encarta
"Virtually all grains, fruits, vegetables, wildflowers, and trees must be pollinated and fertilized to produce seed or fruit, and pollination is vital for the production of critically important agricultural crops, including corn, wheat, rice, apples, oranges, tomatoes, and squash."
4. Pollination must be accomplished by plants of the same species...a rose is a rose is a rose...you can't cross a rose with a spruce...or oughtn't.
5. There are two types of pollination: Cross-pollination and self-pollination. Some species can accomplish both. Borrowing again quite heavily from Encarta
"Most plants are designed for cross-pollination, in which pollen is transferred between different plants of the same species. Cross-pollination ensures that beneficial genes are transmitted relatively rapidly to succeeding generations... Cross-pollination introduces genetic diversity into the population at a rate that enables the species to cope with a changing environment. New genes ensure that at least some individuals can endure new diseases, climate changes, or new predators, enabling the species as a whole to survive and reproduce."
Cross-pollination has become compromised in our "modern" world by the wide usage of genetically-altered "improved" plants. As these plants' pollen is carried by pollinators to non-altered crops, the non-altered crops are compromised and a "pure" source is harder to ensure. This is a HUGE issue, and I won't treat it here...yet. But DO read up on it. Just Google GM or GE foods and Monsanto. 'Nuff said for now.
Also in the news is a sort of horrid irony related to cross pollination. As some crops are "engineered" by man to not need pollination, we have such news flashes as the recent lawsuit AGAINST honeybeekeepers by the growers of hybrid Clementine oranges, whose crops, it is claimed, are "compromised" by these pollinators. It seems the bees do their job, but the Clementine variety orange growers can't keep their crops "sterile" because of cross-pollination. And so they're suing...the beekeepers! Oh give me an ever-lovin' break...
OK, back on topic
"In self-pollination, pollen is transferred from the stamens to the pistil within one flower. The resulting seeds and the plants they produce inherit the genetic information of only one parent, and the new plants are genetically identical to the parent. The advantage of self-pollination is the assurance of seed production when no pollinators, such as bees or birds, are present. It also sets the stage for rapid propagation—weeds typically self-pollinate, and they can produce an entire population from a single plant. The primary disadvantage of self-pollination is that it results in genetic uniformity of the population, which makes the population vulnerable to extinction by, for example, a single devastating disease to which all the genetically identical plants are equally susceptible. Another disadvantage is that beneficial genes do not spread as rapidly as in cross-pollination, because one plant with a beneficial gene can transmit it only to its own offspring and not to other plants. Self-pollination evolved later than cross-pollination, and may have developed as a survival mechanism in harsh environments where pollinators were scarce."
Which of these two types of pollination occurs is what determines, in the plant world, the answer to "who's your daddy?"
In general, cross-pollination insures vigor, adaptability, and biodiversity...instead of a plant species reproducing for just one set of qualities, a broad scope of qualities of any given species that's cross-pollinated can insure its continued adaptation and survival AND its broader scope of usefulness to the creatures whose survival is hinged to it. Less susceptibility to eradication via a strong diversity keeps that link in the chain strong not only for the plant species itself, but for the other animal and insect species whose populations are also vulnerable to eradication, and are having to constantly adapt.
6. Since plants are stationary, in order for most pollination to occur, it requires outside intervention. Pollen transfer can be achieved by different methods...in some species, by the wind, and in others, by the movements of bees, birds, butterflies, insects, bats, and mice. Without these carriers, it cannot "travel."
Or in other words, plants "get frisky" best via pollinators.
The topic is far more detailed and interesting than the brief description I've bulleted here, in case anyone wants to engage in some pretty fascinating reading about just how beautifully this process unfolds, and how intricate is the pollination interaction of different species. Conifers have a different specialized way of reproducing than do most flowers, and so on.
But for now, I just wanted to enter a brief description of the basics, so that we know what we're talking about when we begin venturing into the areas related to those who help the process...the pollinators.
Pollination may seem a subject fit more for a botanist than the man on the street, but pollination affects nearly all the plant life we see around us, the continuation of plant reproduction, and the food we eat. Breaking this chain would be akin to our society suddenly believing it can rely upon test tubes for most human reproduction. Certainly, on some small scale, it can be "managed." But it can never be the same world if man eliminates the existing order by believing it's an adequate substitute to "play God."
All of the above statements are written AS I UNDERSTAND THEM. I am not a scientist, but I am an observer and participant in the natural world. Please feel free to correct me if I am in error on any specific point. I'm trying to grasp the big picture while at the same time having a clue about how the pieces fit together...so I can be informed and better understand how to cooperate WITH the order already designed to keep this created world thriving DESPITE humankind's steps backwards in its stewardship...and make steps FORWARD in returning it to that condition.
Next up...a little info about the pollinators themselves. And then onwards to the list of plants that insure the continuing existence of these creatures whose job helps our continued existence.