In order to philosophise about pollination one has to put oneself into the mind of a bee, one must think like a bee.
Or, of course, like any of a multitude of flying, creeping, slithering or scuttling creatures that are involved in pollination in one way or another. The simple truth is that they really don’t care. Unlike you and I they are incapable of considering the deeper implications, they don’t worry about ‘the meaning of life’, they don’t give a tweet, a buzz or even a squeal, shriek or cackle about whether or not pollen from one flower is transferred to the stigma of another.
All kinds of animals assist plants with this most important of tasks.
Honey bees have gone professional, but solitary bees and both of the larger bumble and carpenter bees spend their days inadvertently pollinating a vast array of flowers while helping themselves to pollen and nectar. It simply happens while they are going about their lives. The long warm days of summer belong to the bees and those ostentatious butterflies, but nights are filled with moths and bats. At night the nectar-loving flying foxes get their furry faces covered with enough pollen to impregnate an entire flower-laden baobab tree and during the day Cape rock elephant shrews stick their elephant-trunk-like snouts into the far recesses of pagoda lilies to lick up the energy-rich nectar.
Plants entice with aromas, colours and patterns. They lead an army of willing pollinators up the garden path, from flower to flower, from anther to stigma. Co-evolution between plants and animals is fairly common and the many varied African sunbirds long, curved beaks are imminently suited for obtaining sweet nectar from the tubular flowers of the lions ear plant. They are meant to be together.
The Zambian Barbet (previously known as Chaplin’s Barbets) are Zambia’s only true endemic birds and while they will eat almost anything when wild figs are out of season, these delicious and abundant fruits are their go-to meal.
Figs are amongst the strangest of fruit and are actually inside-out flowerheads with hundreds of tiny male and female flowers on the inner surface, actually inside the young, green, unpollinated fig. A tiny fig-wasp, one specific type of wasp for a specific type of fig, is the only creature that can pollinate these odd fruits. It does so by entering the fig via a too-small opening at its tip called a ostiole. The opening is so small that the female wasps wings and antennae are sheared off on the journey.
According to Simon van Noort (Iziko South African Museum), once the female fig wasps have left the fig, it ripens, changing colour and smell, and becomes attractive to seed or fruit eating birds, bats, monkeys and even lizards. Fig trees are considered to be keystone species in many tropical and subtropical ecosystems, because of the all year round production of figs, providing food in seasons when other fruiting trees are not. Fruit eating animals play an important part in the propagation of fig trees, acting as the dispersal agents of the seeds.
The philosophical point is that these tiny insignificant wasps are perhaps the only animals that actually care about the future of the flower that they pollinate.
In behaviour known as ‘Mutualism’, the female fig wasps actively pollinate the figs so that they will ripen in time with the growth of her larvae within the fig. No random pollination ‘just happening’ as she goes about her day, the marvelous little fig-wasp sacrifices her existence for the better good. The future of fig trees is inexorably linked to one specific type of fig wasp who, in turn, could not simply move on to another type of fig or another type of fruit. She dies inside an inside-out flower.
Without pollinators doing their thing, whether randomly or with purpose, our lives would be so much poorer.
So many plant species would simply cease to exist. Fields of wild flowers would vanish, the wild figs and loquats of the Zambian miombo woodland would disappear along with the largest mammal migration in the world and perhaps worst of all, if a certain little fly, the chocolate midge, was no more then there would be no pollination of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) and no chocolate. Ponder on that.