Ask a local master gardener: What’s the difference between nectar and pollen?

  • Jeff Engel

For the Gazette
Published: 5/30/2019 4:31:43 PM

Q: What is the difference in purpose for pollinators between nectar and pollen? I want to add a few pollinator plants this year and hear they need plants that offer both .

— C. J. Westhampton

A: Thanks for supporting the pollinators, C.J.! Simply put (very simply), pollen contains protein, along with fat and other nutrients pollinators need while nectar contains sugars, vitamins, salts, oils, and additional nutrients that together offer a high energy food source for pollinators. 

Pollen is the fine, typically yellow, sticky powder you see on the male flower parts (stamens). It needs to be taken to the female flower parts (pistil, specifically the stigma) of either the same flower (self-pollination) or another flower of the same species (cross-pollination) to make fertile seeds and/or fruit. If you are a plant with roots in the ground and cannot move, making that transfer is a challenge. Yes, the wind will distribute some types of pollen, but most pollen is too heavy for that method. Nature’s answer: bring on the pollinators! 

The trick for the plants then becomes how to attract pollinators so they will pick up the pollen and transport it as needed. Their answer? Offer a reward — sweet, liquid nectar.  And it works. Apparently, humans are not the only ones who get sugar cravings.

Different pollinators use nectar and pollen differently.  Bees use both. For example, early in spring after a winter’s hibernation, queen bumblebees use pollen to help ripen their eggs and get nutrition and also use nectar for energy. Honeybees make bee bread, mixing pollen and nectar with their saliva and feeding it to their larvae. Famously, bees also collect nectar to make honey.    

Hummingbirds are nectar eaters, only consuming pollen as a side effect of its getting stuck on their tongue while they take a sweet sip from a tubular flower. Butterflies are also nectar consumers, using their long tongue, also called a proboscis, like a straw to slurp up their flight fuel. Bats and other insects serve as helpful pollinators, too.

When considering plants for your pollinators, know that different plants attract different types of pollinators. You will see plants listed as butterfly plants, hummingbird plants, bee plants, or overall pollinator-friendly plants and you can create gardens customized specifically for particular pollinators. Native plants are always good to use as they have co-evolved with the pollinators already in your area, so they are by nature a good match.

To learn more about pollinators and pollinator plants, check out the Western Mass Pollinator Network’s website at wmassbees.org. They have links to many helpful resources. The Western Massachusetts Master Gardener’s Association also has information in their website’s Garden Resources section at wmmga.org.

Good question, C.J. Thanks for asking a (local) Master Gardener.

 Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at AskAMasterGardener@wmmga.org. One question will be answered per week. wmmga.org




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