From the buzzing bee to the gliding butterfly, pollinators are indispensable to our environments, gardens, and homes. Pollinating insects and animals travel from plant to plant carrying pollen on their bodies. This critical action enables reproduction for flowering plants, including wild species, and many crops that are essential to human society. Without pollinator species, we wouldn’t have many of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts we eat every day, or natural fibers like cotton and flax. And, as a company that only sells open-pollinated seed, we love the pollinators! Without them we wouldn’t have the seeds to sling to you fine folks! It’s a topic close to our hearts. You know about the honeybee, but the world of pollinator species is so much bigger than that. Read on to learn all about the pollinators you haven’t met yet.
The Underdogs of the Pollinators
When we think of pollinators, the one we most often think of is the European honeybee. These now-common bees were introduced to North America in the 1600s for honey production. They aren’t considered invasive, but they also are not the most effective pollinators for every crop and wildflower. In fact, honeybees can sometimes compete with native bees, and the USGS recommends that honeybees not be introduced to conservation areas. North America is home to thousands of species of native bees and wasps that pollinate different types of plants, along with a wide array of other types of pollinators like beetles, moths, hummingbirds, and sometimes even bats!
Bumblebees are social insects that nest in the ground or in thick grass. If you find a nest in your yard, it’s best to mark the location and leave it alone! Bumblebees are not aggressive, and typically won’t bother anyone unless their nest is disturbed. They are essential pollinators of flowers that require “buzz pollination,” meaning rapid vibration to shake the pollen loose. Tomatoes and potatoes are notable members of this category! North American bumblebee species include the American Bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus) and the now-endangered Rusty-Patched Bumblebee (Bombus affinis).
All the other bees (there are a lot!)
It’s hard to even know where to start with native bees - there are over 4,000 species of them in the United States! Next time you’re out in a meadow (or weedy side yard, or abandoned lot) with lots of flowers, sit a while and really watch who comes to visit. There will probably be a number of honeybees and bumblebees, which are easy to recognize, but there will be other unassuming little creatures tucking into the flowers as well - tiny sweat bees, longhorn bees with wild-looking antennae, metallic-looking mason bees. Some of these species are specialists, pollinating just one or a few particular types of flower, like the Southeastern Blueberry Bee (Habropoda laboriosa), while others are generalists that pollinate a wide range of different flowers, like leafcutter bees (Megachile perihirta). Many of them don’t have stingers. Most native bee species are ground-nesting and solitary, though some are semi-social and nest in groups. And, almost all of them have become increasingly rare in recent years due to habitat loss. This is why it’s so important to reserve parts of our gardens and farms for undisturbed pollinator habitat!
Chances are some of the insects you thought were bees in your garden are not bees at all. Flower flies, also known as hoverflies, in the family Syrphidae mimic bees for protection from predators. They sport black and yellow stripes and may look quite convincing, but their behavior gives them away. Unlike bees, who are always moving along in looping paths, syrphid flies hover in place and change positions in the blink of an eye, turning this way and that. But like bees, they visit flowers for pollen and nectar. Many native plants are pollinated by flies of all sorts - pawpaw trees, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and many trilliums, to name a few. Most fly-pollinated flowers are relatively plain looking to the human eye and often have a not-so-pleasant (or downright nasty) smell, mimicking other things flies tend to be attracted to, like carcasses or rotting fruit.
Beetles were actually around pollinating plants long before bees and butterflies evolved, and many ancient species of plants still rely on them. Beetles that pollinate flowers are typically interested in eating pollen and navigate by smell, so beetle-pollinated flowers tend to be highly fragrant, and produce a lot of pollen. Magnolias, tulip trees, water lilies, goldenrod, spicebush, and yarrow are among the native plants that rely on beetles for pollination.
Most wasps hunt and eat other insects or spiders, but many also eat nectar from flowers for an energy boost. Most of these species are not key pollinators because they are smooth-bodied and don’t carry as much pollen as fuzzy bees can, but a few are specialized nectar eaters and play a significant role in flower pollination. One such example is Masarine wasps, which visit flowers such as beardtongue and phacelia, among others. Ever eaten a fig? It was pollinated by wasps! Fig wasps have a symbiotic relationship with figs, as the plant’s only pollinator. Female fig wasps carrying pollen enter an immature fig through the pore at the end of the fruit and lay their eggs inside, pollinating the flowers in the process. (A fig is essentially an inside-out flower cluster - the fruit contains the flowers.) The wasps’ larvae grow up inside the fruit and their female offspring leave the fig carrying pollen, to start the cycle again inside another fruit. The fig flowering is timed perfectly so that when a female wasp enters to lay eggs, the flowers are receptive to pollen, and by the time her offspring are ready to fly away, the flowers are producing pollen for them to carry (and so that by the time the fruit matures and you eat it, the wasps are long gone!)
You can spot a flower specialized for hummingbird pollination by its color, shape, and position. They are most often red, orange, or pink, tubular-shaped to accommodate a hummingbird’s long beak, and positioned so that a hummingbird could drink from them while hovering. That said, hummingbirds aren’t all that picky, and will visit just about any nectar-producing flower they can reach into with their beaks. They have to drink about twice their weight in nectar every day, after all! Many different species of hummingbirds pollinate flowers all over North America, ranging from the tropics to Canada. Some hummingbird-pollinated plants include honeysuckle, penstemon, columbines, bee balm, cardinal flower, larkspur, and many cacti.
Many flowers that open at night are pollinated by moths. The most well-known of the pollinator moths are hawk moths, also known as hummingbird moths, so named because they are huge and resemble hummingbirds as they hover around the garden. They are known to pollinate flowers such as datura, evening primrose, jasmine, and four-o’-clocks. Unfortunately, we know their offspring as tomato or tobacco hornworms. Much as we gardeners may hate them, resist going overboard trying to get rid of hornworms unless they are doing serious damage to your tomatoes - it’s worth sacrificing a few munched leaves for beautiful flowers and amazing pollinators!
Bats act as pollinators in many tropical and desert regions, visiting flowers at night to drink nectar. In the United States, these pollinator bats’ range is limited. In the deserts along the US-Mexico border in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, the bats visit agave plants and Saguaro cacti, and in Southern Florida, they pollinate tropical fruit trees like mangoes, bananas, and guavas.
Isn’t the world of pollinator species amazing? Just about every species listed here is in decline due to some combination of habitat loss, and chemical use in agriculture. Home gardeners can play an important part in conserving our native pollinator species, thereby protecting the resilience of our native ecosystems, and our agricultural system. To learn more, check out our blog post on growing a pollinator-friendly garden!
Written by Leah Smith