There has been a lot of talk about pollinators in recent years, and how the declining populations of honeybees will affect food production. But have you ever wondered how it all started? When I began to write this, I had a rather broad understanding of pollination. However, the more I learned, the more questions I had. How did pollination come into being? Why is it so important to us now? Let’s take a deep dive into ancient history to learn a little more about the origins of pollination.
Pollination is believed to have begun around 130-150 million years ago. Basically, pollination is plant sex: the way plants spread and combine their genetic material to create new generations of plants. It is also essential to the production of fruit and seed crops that form the basis of our current food system. In the earliest forms of pollination, plants would scatter their pollen (male seed) to the wind and hope that a portion would land in the right spot on a female flower (staimen) and voila, there would be “chemistry”! However, this is an extremely unreliable way to reproduce. Although many plants still use this method, most have evolved into a primary relationship to collaborate with insects.
As early insects were flying around in search for food, they discovered how nutritious pollen was. Then several specialists decided to make it the main source and feed solely upon this nourishing golden dust of microspores. As the plants grew and thrived as a result of these relationships, they began to “sweeten the deal” by creating nectar for the services rendered. Flowers began to evolve bright colors to stand out and attract insects, distinguishing themselves from the green leaves and foliage that offered no sweet reward for the hard-working pollinators.
Millions of years have passed since the first flowers developed their pollination practice into the stunning displays we see today. This mutualistic relationship has changed the entire appearance of the earth, into the bright and colorful flowers and the vast variety of fruits and vegetables we all enjoy.
Learning the evolution of pollination from its ancient origins to the intricate and collaborative relationship that now occurs has been an inspiration to me. I hope the next time you receive a bouquet of flowers or taste the sweet juices of your favorite fruit, you think of the 130 million year journey it took to reach you.