Insect Pollinators are Essential for Seed Saving

The simple act of saving seeds carries forward centuries of work by humans to cultivate plants that sustain and inspire us.

  • A honey bee pollinates a mustard plant (Brassica sp.)
    Photo by Timothy Johnson
  • Bumble bee on tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica)
    Photo by Timothy Johnson
  • Sweat bee on Cichorium sp.
    Photo by Timothy Johnson
  • Leafcutter bee on carrot (Daucus carota)
    Photo by Timothy Johnson
  • Wasp on nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
    Photo by Timothy Johnson
  • Hover fly on dill (Anethum graveolens)
    Photo by Scott Vlaun
  • Common housefly on Allium sp.
    Photo by Timothy Johnson
  • Filled with advice for the home gardener and the seasoned horticulturist alike, “The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving” provides straightforward instruction on collecting seed that is true-to-type.
    Cover courtesy Seed Savers Exchange

The Seed Garden (Seed Savers Exchange, 2015) by Micaela Colley & Jared Zystro and edited by Lee Buttala & Shanyn Siegel brings together decades of research and hands-on experience to teach both novice gardeners and seasoned horticulturists how to save the seeds of their favorite vegetable varieties.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Seed Garden.

The fact that more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species are pollinator dependent is important to vegetable gardeners who grow species cultivated for their edible fruit, such as squash and melons. But the role performed by pollinators is even more significant for seed savers because without successful pollination and subsequent fertilization, plants will not set seeds.  While the work of many pollinators goes on with little or no intervention by a gardener, a knowledge of some of the key players can help a gardener appreciate the work pollinators perform and may even provide an understanding of what levels of cross-pollination to expect.

Butterflies, flies, wasps, some beetles, bats, and hummingbirds visit flowers in search of nectar and brush against the anthers of a flower, getting pollen grains on their bodies in the process.  In this manner, they carry pollen from flower to flower and may transfer it between flowers on the same plant, to another plant of the same species, or even onto flowers of an unrelated plant. But among pollinators, bees are considered the most important group, primarily because they are the only group of insects that actively collect pollen and, in the process, transfer large amounts of pollen from flower to flower. Bees also exhibit a behavior called floral constancy, which means that they visit flowers of one species repeatedly over a period of time.  This is important because it means that most of the pollen they collect will be transferred to flowers of the same species, allowing fertilization to proceed provided other conditions are suitable. In addition, bees are also one of the few groups of insects that actively construct a home for their young.  This place-based behavior limits their foraging range; bees tend to visit the same groups of plants over and over again, making them ideal garden pollinators.


North America is home to roughly 4,000 species of bees, the vast majority of which live solitary lives, whereby each female constructs and provisions a nest, lays a small number of eggs, and dies before her offspring emerge. Solitary bees often go unnoticed because of their small size and drab appearance, but they are the bees most commonly found in vegetable gardens. They contribute enormously to crop pollination – in many cases providing all of the pollination a farmer or gardener needs. At the other end of the bee diversity spectrum are the large bumble bees, which are social, forming an annual colony of a single queen and dozens of her worker-daughters.  Whether small or large, solitary or social, many species of bees are effective pollinators.  Different types of bees prefer different crops.

European honey bees (Apis mellifera) were introduced to North America in the late 1600s.  Colonies live for multiple years and have a caste system consisting of a single egg-laying queen, a number of nonreproductive worker-daughters, and a lesser number of male drones who exist only to mate with newly hatched virgin queens. Over the past few decades, honey bee populations have dwindled due to disease, parasites, pesticides, and other factors, but there are still a significant number of honey bees, in part due to the resurgence of backyard beekeeping. Given that honey bees can forage several miles from their hive, they are effective pollinators, although their foraging range increases the likelihood of unwanted cross-pollination between varieties within a species.

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