Why all the buzz about pollinators? Well, without them we wouldn’t have apples, pumpkins, or chocolate to name a few of my personal favorite foods. You’d be missing most of your favorites, too.  There are over 1,000 different types of plants that we depend upon for food or medicines that would become extinct without pollinators.

For most people the word pollinator means bees. But bees aren’t the only pollinators plants need. And some plants don’t attract bees at all—they rely on a different type of insect to thrive.

Take the firecracker plant. Its scarlet red flowers are long, narrow tubes. These blossoms grow on thin stems and hang downward.

 

Bees can’t see the color red and would have a difficult time getting into and out of the flower tubes because of their wide, heavy bodies. But the orange barred sulfur butterfly is lightweight and its long proboscis can easily reach inside the narrow flowers. While it’s only after the nectar, the sulfur butterfly still gets pollen on its body and legs while feeding, and some of that pollen gets left on the next flower.

Most of us would not associate wasps with pollination, but one type of wasp is known as pollen wasps because they collect nectar and pollen to feed their young just as bees do. Two other species of wasps (the European wasp V. germanica and the common V. Vulgaris wasp) pollinate the broad-leaved helleborine orchid. To lure the wasps, the orchid emits a scent that smells like an infestation of caterpillars.

The most important wasp, in terms of pollination, is probably the fig wasp. Without these tiny insects, we wouldn’t have figs. There are roughly 900 kinds of fig wasps worldwide and each species pollinates just one kind of fig! Although about 700 types of fig trees grow around the world, there are just two species of fig trees native to the United States and each of them relies on its own particular species of tiny wasp. The flowers of fig trees aren’t visible (they grow inside the fig) so how does the wasp find the flowers? When the female flowers inside the fruit are ready to be pollinated, they emit a scent that can only be recognized by the particular species of wasp that the flower needs. The wasp’s body carries pollen from the fig tree it hatched from and that pollen then fertilizes the fruit the wasp is attracted by.

Another tiny pollinator is a type of fly called a midge. Without a few species of midges, there would be no chocolate! The flowers of cacao trees are so intricate that midges are the only insect teensy enough to get inside. Cacao flowers don’t grow in easily noticed areas like the flowers of most trees. Instead, they grow on the tree trunk and lowest branches. The tiny white flowers also face down rather than up or out. Perhaps this is why they also have 75 ingredients that combine to make an aroma to entice the midges.

Larger flies are also pollinators. In fact, there are close to 900 species of pollinating flies in North America alone. They’re known as Syrphid flies or flower flies. Many of these species protect themselves by mimicking bees. Their yellow and black stripes and buzzing sound fool birds and other predators into leaving them alone. How could you tell a flower flies from a bee? Unlike bees, flower flies have just one set of wings (not two sets) and their antennas are short. But the easiest way is to look at their eyes. Flower flies have large eyes just like regular flies.

Another difference is that flower flies pollinate plants bees avoid. For example, red trillium is beautiful to look at but smells like rotting meat. Skunk cabbage and pawpaw flowers also smell like rotting flesh. Bees won’t go near these plants, but their stench and dark coloring attract carrion flies.

Not all flowers bloom in the daytime. Moths are important pollinators for night-blooming plants. Recent research shows that moths may visit more plant species than bees! Apples, pears, peaches, and strawberries are some of the fruits pollinated by moths. Like bees, moths have furry bodies that carry pollen from flower to flower. In the Sonoran Desert, the white-lined sphinx moth is a busy pollinator of different types of plants. And yucca plants would cease to exist without yucca moths.

Bats are perhaps the better-known night-time pollinators. In tropical areas bats are known to pollinate over 1,000 different plant species. Of these, bats are the only pollinator of more than 500 species of flowering plants. Some of the crops bats help pollinate in the US include dates, mangoes, and peaches, all of which bloom at night. In the desert southwest, bats keep agave and several types of cacti, including the saguaro, going. A Mexican long-nose bat may visit as many as 30 flowers each night, spreading pollen with its face and body.

Without pollination, we would find our food supply greatly limited. And while bees are hard workers, it’s good to know that there are many other types of insects and animals that pollinate plants as well.