Because I love bees and because the act of pollination fascinates me so–it saddens me to think that all too often this crucial event and the animals that make it happen–are overlooked. It really is amazing to think about how the actions of one animal can affect an entire ecosystem.
While honeybees are the most commonly used pollinator in domestic agriculture, they are far from the only pollinators. Pollinators can be insects, birds, bats, lizards, and mammals.
Bees – When you talk about bees, most people think of the honeybee–yet the honeybee is not native to North America, having been brought here by European settlers. We have some 4000 different species who are native to the continent–including bumble bees, orchard bees, mining bees, alkali bees and sweat bees–just to name a few.
Wasps – I know, I know–no one seems to like wasps. They have a reputation for being aggressive–yet they are incredibly beneficial creatures. The adults drink nectar, and so help with pollination–yet their larvae require a protein source–so wasps prey upon caterpillars and other insects in your gardens in order to feed their babies.
Flies – Many insects, flies included, utilize the free meal that flowers offer in the form of nectar and pollen, and as they are foraging for their food–they are inadvertently pollinating flowers–even a few important human food crops, including strawberries, onions, and carrots.
Mosquitoes – Yes–even the pesky mosquito has some value in the ecosystem (you know–aside from being great food for bats, which we all love!). While the female requires the protein she gathers from the blood of animals, the male drinks the nectar of flowers to sustain himself.
Butterflies & moths – Perhaps the most beloved of pollinators–while they are not the most important ones, they are perhaps the most conspicuous–flitting and floating across a garden or field.
Beetles – These are the most prolific of pollinators–with more than 340,000 identified species of beetles worldwide, and nearly 30,000 species in North America alone. Along with flies, beetles were some of the very first pollinators 150 million years ago.
Ants – Ants can often be found busily collecting pollen from flowers–and peonies are actually dependent upon ants for their reproduction!
Birds, bats, & lizards–oh my!
Birds – Who doesn’t love hummingbirds? Practically everyone knows of these colorful birds who zip from one blossom to the next, but honeycreepers in Hawaii, honeyeaters in Austrailia, brush-tongued parrots of New Guinea, and sunbirds in the Old World tropics–as serve as pollen vectors for plants.
Bats – One of my other favorite pollinators–which are important in desert and tropical climates. The lesser-long nosed bat, and the Mexican long-tongued bat both travel thousands of miles into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and are crucial for the pollination of the magnificent saguaro cactus. It is a personal dream of mine to go to the Saguaro National Park some day to see this event in action–one of natures’ most beautiful events!
Lizards – Some lizard species, include a variety of gecko,and some skinks–are specialized pollinators.
Mammals as pollinators
There are a number of mammals who provide pollination to particular plants–including the black and white ruffed lemurs, and honey possums. But any creature walking through a meadow can inadvertently pick up pollen grains on its fur and transfer it to another flower, thereby pollinating the plant. Even humans.
What’s your favorite pollinator?
While this is not by any means a comprehensive list–it gives you some idea of the broad ranging scope that we are talking about when we refer to pollinators. They are not all so loveable as the colorful hummingbird, the graceful butterfly, or the fuzzy bumble bee–but they all play a crucial role in the Earth’s integrated ecosystems. My favorites–of course are the bees–all 20,000 species of them–with bats coming in at a close second-place. How about you? What’s your favorite pollinator???