Who are the pollinators?

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The spectrum of animal pollinators is much broader than most people realize.  With some 200,000 species world-wide, pollinating approximately 80% of all flowering plants, this group of animals has a profound impact upon the functioning of Earth’s ecology.  They are a keystone group of animals and without them our lives would be very different indeed.

echinacea pollinationThanks to their prevalence in agriculture and humanity’s long-standing relationship with them, the honeybee is often the first to come to mind when we talk about pollinators.  Followed by other favorites like the hummingbird and butterflies–the cute and cuddly of the pollinator demographic.  But there are many more species of pollinators of flowers on this Earth.

Insects are the most common types of pollinators, with 19,000 documented species and approximately 30,000 species globally.  They are divided into 4 major groups: bees and wasps, flies, butterflies and moths, and beetles.

Bees & Wasps

wasp pollinationThere are about 20,000 species of bees around the world.  North America is home to 4500 species, and Maine boasts 256 named species of bees–16 of those being Bumblebees.  Bees are the most efficient of all the pollinators, with fuzzy little bodies and wings that give them the ideal attributes for spreading pollen across the land.

While wasps are less than appreciated, they are valuable pollinators and predatory insects that make them beneficial to any garden or backyard.  They belong to the same order as bees and ants: Hymenoptera.

Flies

fly pollination of flowersThese two-winged insects were the original pollinators, and the group is made up of flies, gnats, and even mosquitos.  They have less hair than bees, which makes them less efficient pollinators.

Typically these insects will pollinate flowers in darker shades of dull to dark brown or purple (though not exclusively), and those flowers will often exude a putrid odor to attract their pollinators.  In Maine, the Stinking Benjamin is one such flower.

Butterflies & Moths

butterfly pollinationThese are less efficient pollinators, but popular because of their variety of color and their grace and beauty.  They have good vision, but a weak sense of smell.

During the day butterflies flit about the land, but moths are nocturnal, preferring pale flowers that are highly fragrant with copious amounts of nectar.

Beetles

beetle pollinationThe largest set of pollinating animals due to the sheer number of them, beetles were among the first pollinators to utilize the free meal that plants offered in the form of nectar and pollen.  They are known as the “mess and soil” pollinators because of their tendency to eat their way through a flower to get what they want.

Flowers typically visited by beetles are bowl-shaped with exposed sex organs.  They are usually white to dull-white or green in color, and possess a strongly fruity smell.  The flowers may be single or clustered, but will offer the beetles moderate amounts of nectar.

Vertebrates

bat pollinationmonkey pollinationThere are a surprising number of vertebrate pollinators as well, including many birds, mammals, and lizards.

If slugs and snails smear pollen just by sliding from one flower to another, and humanity inadvertently pollinates flowers simply by trudging through a meadow, imagine all of the creatures who make a meal of the nectar that flowers offer as a trading source for the dispersal of their pollen spores.  2,000 vertebrate species make up this final group of pollinators, including the popular hummingbirds, but also opossums and monkeys, and even geckos.

Conclusion

It’s crucially important that humanity learn to recognize the inter-connected role that these animals play in the well-being of our world.  We are all part of an ecological system in which each creature, each plant, each storm and season plays a part that cannot be done without.  Without pollinators more than 75% of plants on Earth would not be able to reproduce, and the diversity of food on our plates would be reduced by two-thirds.

These are not simply “bugs” and “pests” to be suffered through and dealt with, pollinators are amazing and the service they provide is a testament to the beauty of our planet Earth.

What’s your favorite pollinator?

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About Samantha Burns

Maine blogger, beekeeper and farmer. Follow along with my many misadventures in the pursuit of a more sustainable life. Find out how I am advocating for local food in my community and working to promote pollinator conservation here in the state of Maine. Every day is an adventure!

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