The Unsung Heroes – Pollinator Appreciation

Did you know: Over 80% of the world’s plants must have a pollinator in order to reproduce?

Pollination is a simple act of transference; pollen grains from the anther (male) to the stigma (female). Since the majority of our botanical beauties remain in place, it is crucial for them to find an outside stimuli for this process. This means it is a symbiotic relationship where, more often than not, both parties can benefit – this is called mutualism. Pollinators have been recorded as far back as 99.6 – 65.5 million years ago! With this relationship it should be mentioned that no two organisms can function in isolation without each other. Plants have evolved to lure in pollinators through a means of color, scent, and/or shape. Some have even evolved to emulate highly pollinated plants in order to lure hosts in even without offering rewards! In turn, pollinators use the nectar for energy and pollen for proteins in order to have a healthy and successful life.

A lot of emphasis has been placed on birds, bees and butterflies, however, there are many more forgotten agents to this dispersal. I (and every other biologist) have often mentioned that diversity is the key to life. I would like for this article to serve as a follow up on how we can be mindful of which plants we choose when bringing nature back into our yards. The best way to do this is by looking at what is called pollination syndromes. This is an elegant term for describing the plant’s biological characteristics which then tells us what pollinators they will attract. (i.e. Trumpet like inflorescence of Cuphea ‘Vermillionaire’ is specifically suited to humming bird’s slender beaks as well as butterflies’ probiscis.)  

Here is some of North America’s forsaken friends highlighted in this week’s Fun Fact:

Bats: There are two species that migrate up to North America from the deserts and tropics to help pollinate at night. If you enjoy agave, cocoa, bananas, mangoes, guavas, and eucalyptus then you should thank a bat for this! They are attracted to flowers that are white, green or purple which open at night. These flowers are abundant with pollen and nectar and, much like with birds, are crucial for successful migrations!

Natterer’s bat (Myotis nattereri – part of the Vespertilionidae species) found in North America

Moths: Another night time feeder but don’t put them all into one box, there are many that feed during the day also! Yucca moths love Yucca (obviously) but clearwing moths will seek out Liatris as well as Tobacco, Morning Glory and Gardenias. They seek out large clusters of flowers which can provide places to land and often seek out white or pale reds, purples or pink. They have probiscis much like butterflies so think of plants with tubular (trumpet-like) inflorescence.

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)

Beetles: These were the OG (original gangsters) of arthropods found pollinating angiosperms like Magnolias! Let’s face it, beetles are as clumsy flying as I am walking. This is why they love open “saucer-like” flowers that Magnolias have. Spicebush is another east coast favorite of theirs, but they will also go after Spirea and Goldenrods. If you have trouble figuring out beetles from other arthropods just remember to look for the diamond on their backs where the protective coverings to their wings start. This is partly where their scientific name, Coleoptera, comes from.  Fun fact: Coleoptera means “sheath wings” since the elytra (forewings) are sclerotized (hardened tissue).

Longhorn beetle on a Venus flytrap blossom. Photo credit: Clyde Sorenson.

Flies: No doubt that the name alone sends images of incessant swatting at BBQs and picnics. However, not every member of Diptera is like this. There are some that have evolved, such as Syrphids, that mimic bees. Although, not as hairy as their bee counterparts, they help to play a crucial role in pollination. Some flies are the only members to pollinate plants like Red Trillium which smells like rotting meat and happens to be the most common native Trillium along the east coast. While we are discussing Diptera, I have to also recognize male mosquitos since they, too, belong to this group. Males need nectar to survive and actually help pollinate many Orchids. Keep in mind, it is only the females (like horseflies) that need hemoglobin in order to reproduce successfully.

Hoverflies, also called flower flies or syrphid flies

Wasps: USDA describes pollen wasps (Masarines) the best so I will leave this one to them: “…superficially yellow jacket-like, but with an identity problem. Almost all wasps are flesh-eaters, but masarines are more like Ferdinand the Bull, who was more interested in smelling flowers than in goring matadors. Pollen wasps forsake stinging, eating, and feeding other insects to their offspring, for plying flowers.” ( Wasps, like other members of Hymenoptera (bees and ants) have high energy needs which they source from pollen. Goldenrods and Penstemon are popular choices for these species. Did you know that in the tropics wasps are a keystone species that pollinates over 1,000 fig varieties? Additionally, if you have ever eaten a fig, chances are you have probably also ingested a wasp! 

Pseudomasaris vespoides visiting Penstemon cyananthus. Photo by Teresa Prendusi.

Globally, pollinators are in huge decline due to many reasons that threaten the safety of the world’s biodiversity. Over usage of pesticides, insecticides, monocropping, loss of habitat and invasive species all are systematically working to drastically reduce these numbers. One lesser-known factor to this decimation is how we are treating the species above because they aren’t as pretty or cute as other species. It is up to us as humans to find new ways to encourage the success of all life in every aspect. We could always start by bringing nature back to our residences, however, taking time to read and better understand the world. To get personal, think about the same way we honor our veterans after their time in service. Instead of having a BBQ with family or saying thank you to us, take the time to get to know our stories and what we went through in order to see who we are today. Veterans are more than just sons and daughters who wore a uniform. Much like our veterans, these pollinators are more than just surreptitious wings fluttering around. I hope we can use this knowledge to help create positive change in the way consumers, policymakers, and developers interpret the world around them. If we get lose our pollinators, we lose our profits (regardless if they were financial or personal).

Guest Blogger

Joshua Clawson,

Account Executive at Johnson Nursery

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