It’s not an exaggeration to say that without our pollinating species, our gardens and indeed many plant species on earth could not survive. Find out who might be pollinating the plants in your garden and learn how to protect these precious species.
Bees, including honeybees, are among the most famous and effective pollinators. Bees are often fuzzy, and this is no accident. As they fly from flower to flower collecting nectar, their fuzzy bodies gather pollen along the way. Some of that pollen gets transferred to other flowers as they travel. Bees are so important to pollination that in some areas, fruit farmers will hire beekeepers to bring hives to their gardens in the spring to ensure all their trees are properly pollinated and will set fruit.
Some Wasps and Flies are also part of the pollination cycle, as they rely on nectar for energy. There is a whole family of wasps known as the Pollen Wasps, which are responsible for pollinating flowers such as Penstemons. True flies, members of the Diptera family, are also pollinators – learn more here.
Butterflies and Moths are pollinators too. In fact, some night-blooming flowers are pollinated almost exclusively by moths, usually hawk or sphinx moths in the Sphingidae family. (If you’ve ever grown squash, you’ve benefited from the nighttime pollination of moths.) Butterflies and moths tend to pick up pollen on their proboscis (feeding tube) and legs as they travel from flower to flower, as seen below.
Any bird that enjoys the nectar of flowers becomes a part of the pollination cycle, and most people know that hummingbirds are pollinators. In other parts of the world, families of birds called sunbirds and honeyeaters are important pollinators. And in the deserts of the American southwest, the saguaro cactus is pollinated mainly by the White Winged Dove in the northern part of its range.
In many places bats play an important pollination role. Those same cacti in the American Southwest that are pollinated by doves in the northern part of their range rely on Lesser Long-Nosed Bats in the southern part of their range. Around the world, other mammals like sugar gliders and mice have been found to pollinators. And any mammal (including us!) that brushes by a flower and carries pollen to another, although purely by accident, is a pollinator too!
It’s important to note that not all pollinators can pollinate all plants. In fact, some species of plants are believed to have co-evolved with their pollinating species to develop very specialized relationships. Columbine flowers, known for their odd shapes and deep nectar spurs, are pollinated by bees, hummingbirds, and hawk moths that have exactly the right “reach” to get to the precious nectar of each. Because of adaptations like this, it’s important to protect all pollinators, as the loss of even one species could mean serious problems for the plant that relies on it. Some pollinators are in serious trouble. Many people have heard that honeybees in some parts of the world are being threatened by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Overuse of pesticides in many places threaten pollinators across the board, and habitat destruction threatens them too.
- Garden for pollinators. Butterfly and bird gardens are automatic draws for pollinators. Use a book like Attracting Native Pollinators to learn which plants will bring more types of pollinators to your garden, or try out the new (and free!) BeeSmart Pollinator Gardener app for smartphones.
- Avoid Pesticides. You can’t be a good wildlife gardener if you automatically spray every wasp nest you come across. If the wasp nest is in a place unlikely to be disturbed by humans, leave it alone. At my house, we only spray nests that appear by doors and high traffic areas.
- Knowledge is Power. Visit the Pollinator Partnership website for lots of great information, ideas, and activities. Follow blogs like Athena Anderson’s Pollinators.info, and learn how to protect honeybees at The Honeybee Conservancy. And if you missed it, be sure to check out this wonderful pollinator video SeEtta posted last fall.
What’s your favorite pollinator? How do you draw them to your gardens? Tell us in the comments!