When we think of pollinators we think of bees, however there are many creatures that do this wonderful job. In fact, there are about 100,000 different animals that act as pollinators so the list is quite huge. Obviously we won’t cover so many animals in this article, since it will never end!
These animals include bats, birds, flies, beetles, moths, butterflies, wasps, bees, lizards, monkeys, possums, rodents, lemurs and even humans (who do it artificially). Nature is also an important pollinator.
Male parts of the plant create a powdery substance called pollen. Pollen needs to be transferred from the male part to the female part which is usually the stigma in the flower. Pollination happens when pollen is moved from flower to flower or from one part of the flower to another. This process is essential for plants to make seeds, reproduce and food production.
Pollen grains cannot move on their own, so they rely on the wind and animals to move them around. These agents are known as vectors and are essential to the process. We will talk about the importance of pollination in another article, as well as which herbs attract pollinators.
Bees and Bumblebees
When we think of pollinators we automatically think of bees. These buzzing insects need nectar, a sweet and sugary substance produced by plants, for energy. They also need the protein in the pollen to feed the young larvae. The abdomen of the bee has a special fur that traps the pollen, allowing it to be carried from one flower to the other. Bees can pollinate flowers quickly because they visit many flowers, but they tend to favor flowers that they can walk on to sip the nectar.
Bees pollinate about $40 billion dollars worth of produce just in the United States. They are the most important pollinators in the world. Farmers pay people to leave bee hives in their farms for some days so they can pollinate their crops. Hive owners also get honey out of the deal. However, bees are at risk because their population is declining, putting our food supply in danger.
Bumble bees are similar to bees, but they are bigger and fuzzier. Their hives are small, sometimes only 50 members. They are less aggressive than bees, but one bumblebee can sting you many times.
These cousins of the bees are less efficient because they don’t have body hairs that carry pollen. However, there are a few wasp species that can pollinate. Pollen wasps (subfamily Masarinae) are known to feed pollen and nectar to their young. Common wasps (V. vulgaris) and European wasps (V. germanica) pollinate an orchid called the broad-leaved helleborine, also known as Epipactis helleborine. This plant is a perfect example of symbiosis since it produces a smell that resembles a caterpillar infestation to lure the predatory wasps to its flowers.
There would be no figs without the fig wasp that pollinates the tiny flower inside the developing fig fruit.
After bees, butterflies are the second most known pollinators. Every single species of butterfly serves as a pollinator. They have a love and hate relationship with the plants, since adult butterflies feed exclusively on nectar spreading the pollen between flowers. But the caterpillars they produce are a huge threat to plants because they are voracious eaters.
Most plants have evolved to be able to withstand being eaten by caterpillars. Some even attract them on purpose since they need the butterflies to survive after the metamorphosis process.
Less known pollinators than butterflies, but moths are also quite important for the process. Moths are usually nocturnal animals. They love visiting white, fragrant flowers, such as jasmine which could explain why jasmine smells more at night. Species of pollinating moths include owlet moths, underwing moths, geometer moths, hummingbird moth, hawk and sphinx moths.
Yucca plant need yucca moths to pollinate their flowers. The female yucca moth deposits her eggs inside the flower chamber. Then, she collects pollen from the chamber, forms it into a ball, and puts the pollen into the flower’s stigma chamber. Pollination is done and the yucca plant can now produce seeds at the same time that the yucca moth larva is hatching and needs to feed on them.
Charles Darwin was mocked for hypothesizing about the comet orchid that has an exceptionally long nectary which would require the help of a moth with an equally long proboscis. This moth would be the hawk moth that has a proboscis that is about a foot-long!
We all hate mosquitos, but it seems like they have a useful function. Female mosquitoes feed on our blood when they have to lay eggs. They also drink nectar prior to mating. Males just drink the sugary flower nectar to give them energy to fight while searching for mates. Insects who drink nectar also collect and transfer pollen. Mosquitos are known to pollinate some types of orchids, but scientists believe they also pollinate other plants.
Another insect we hate is also on our list of pollinators. Flies prefer to feed on flowers. About half of the 150 families of flies like to visit flowers. They are especially important in places such as arctic or alpine habitats where bees are not as active. Some pollinating flies include some carrion and dung flies, tachinid flies, bee flies, small-headed flies, March flies, and blowflies.
Hover flies (which are also on our list of beneficial insects that control pests) are part of the Syrphidae family and are the best pollinators of all the flies! About 40% of hover flies lay their larvae on their victims which will then suck their juice and kill them.
There are about 6,000 species worldwide which are also known as flower flies because they are so interconnected to flowers. These hover flies like to mimic wasps or bees so much that some even have a modified mouthpart, also called a proboscis which serves to siphon nectar from long and narrow flowers. Hover flies are necessary for functioning orchards, they pollinate many fruit crops including blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, peaches, apricots, plums, apples and pears.
Not the most popular pollinators, since they produce an antibiotic called myrmicacin, which can reduce the viability of the pollen grains they carry. Pollination done by ants is rare, but possible. Flying species of ants are better pollinators, since they can distribute pollen grains in a larger area. Walking ants just go from flower to flower and their exchange range is very limited.
Ants are known to pollinate some species of lilies and orchids in Australia. Formica argentea worker ants carry pollen between the flowers of cascade knotweed. While other species of Formica ants share the pollen of the elf orpine flowers, which is a compact herb that grows on granite outcrops.
If you love chocolate then you need to thank midges! Without this type of fly there would be no chocolate. Midges in the Ceratopogonidae and Cecidomyiidae families are the only known pollinators of the tiny, white flowers produced by the cacao tree. They are the only creatures that can work their way around these complicated flowers. Cacao flowers open fully before sunrise, so midges are more active in their pollination duties at dawn and dusk.
Beetles have been pollinating flowers over 150 million years ago. That is 50 million years earlier than bees! And they continue to pollinate nowadays. Fossil evidence suggest that it was beetles that pollinated cycads, which are ancient flowers. Current beetles still pollinate the descendants of these ancient flowers which would be the water lilies and magnolias. Pollination done by beetles is known as cantharophily.
Flowers that depend on beetles for pollination are usually fragrant, giving decaying, fermented or spicy scents which attract the beetles. These insects do not sip the nectar like most other pollinators. They like to chew and eat part of the plant that they pollinate and leave their droppings behind. There are many species of beetles that serve this purpose including rove beetles, scarab beetles, sap beetles, false blister beetles, long-horned beetles, checkered beetles, tumbling flower beetles, soft-winged flower beetles, soldier beetles, jewel beetles, and blister beetles.
Birds are also on the list of pollinators, but they love to pollinate wildflowers more than food sources. There are no commercial food crops that rely on birds for pollination in North America. However, wildflowers are essential parts of a native ecosystem and a decline in bird population affects ecosystems.
Birds pollinate flowers through a process called ornithophily. Flowers have bright colors and other features to attract birds which stop by to eat the nectar. Sticky pollen will then attach itself onto the bird’s feathers and beak. This pollen will pass on to the next flower that the bird visits, thus pollinating the flower. Birds also eat insects off flowers which contributes to the pollination process.
There are over 2,000 species of pollinating birds. Hummingbirds are particularly important, as well as other types of parrots, sunbirds, honeycreepers, and honey eaters. Plant flowers that are odorless, have a place to perch, have tubular shapes and have petals that curve back and down to attract birds. Hummingbirds love colorful flowers, especially those that are red. Buy hummingbird feeders to attract these birds into your garden. Keep in mind that birds are day feeders, while other insects and bats come to feed at night.
We think that bats eat insects and blood! But some such as the long-nosed bat eats nectar as a source of food if there is no fruit available. Bats only visit flowers which are deep and narrow, to be able to push their heads and chest into the flower to get nectar. During this process they get covered with pollen and then rub it off in the next flower they eat. Bats eat the pollen, then eat the fruit of the plants they pollinated, so it is a win-win for them!
Lemurs pollinate many flowering species in Madagascar. These primates are very similar to monkeys. They love to eat the nectar of flowers using their hands to pull the petals apart. In the process they get their whole face full of pollen, which they then spread to the next flower.
Most don’t think of humans as pollinators, but we are very important pollinators. Many of the plants we rely on for food have to be pollinated by hand because they are not naturally occurring species. Other times there are not enough natural pollinators to pollinate the entire crop. Therefore plants have to be artificially pollinated, usually using a soft brush. Sometimes plants are pollinated to create new varieties.