Written by: Gabrielle Pohl
Edited by: Kate Dickson
In recent years, the importance of protecting pollinators and efforts to conserve them, from simple pollinator garden initiatives to widespread conservation campaigns, has grown to be a global movement. However, most of the time when we think of pollinators, insects like bees and butterflies are what come to mind. This makes sense, as these charismatic species have long been used as the poster children for pollinator conservation given the adoration that exists for things like their colours, patterns, and even their work ethic! But did you know that there are a host of other species, some of whom we consider a nuisance, that also play an important role in pollination? Keep reading to learn more about some of our favourite obscure pollinators, why they are important, and how you can help protect them!
What is a pollinator?
Before we go any further, let’s get some definitions out of the way! A pollinator is an organism that moves pollen from the male part of a flowering plant to the female part of a flowering plant . This allows the plant to reproduce by making seeds. Most of the time they will do this unintentionally, as they benefit from going from flower to flower in many ways including accessing pollen as a food source. Because of this role in plant reproduction, pollinators are the reason why so many plant species exist - without them, our planet would suffer a substantial loss to plant biodiversity.
We Gotta Eat!
You may have already guessed this, but because of their role in plant reproduction, pollinators are essential to maintaining our food systems! About 80% of crop plants grown around the world require pollination by animals . They help grow veggies like cucumber, fruits like apples, seeds like sunflowers, nuts like cashews, and even some of life’s necessities; coffee and chocolate! We need these crops to eat ourselves as well as our livestock (cows, pigs, etc.) . That means the food on our plates is thanks to the hard work of pollinators. If we want to continue enjoying this food, we need to protect our pollinators.
Along with feeding us, pollinators also provide food for wildlife! No pollination means fewer plants, which means less food for herbivores like deer . This in turn impacts the rest of the food web. Small but mighty, pollinators help keep the food web stable.
Along with feeding us, pollinators also provide food for wildlife! No pollination means less plants, which means less food for herbivores like deer. This in turn impacts the rest of the food web. Small but mighty, pollinators help keep the food web stable.
Ecosystem Service Warriors
Take a deep breath in. And breathe out. You are able to do so thanks to pollinators. We need flowering plants to produce breathable oxygen for us . Along with fresh air, flowering plants also help keep water clean and prevent erosion by holding soil with their roots . These flowering plants need pollinators to grow and reproduce!
Lesser celebrated pollinators
As mentioned, we can’t thank bees and butterflies for all pollination. There are a number of other insects as well as species like birds and small mammals that contribute to pollination as well. Some of them may surprise you, as they are often considered nuisance species!
This lesser-known pollinator has a reputation for hanging out in caves and hanging upside-down, but do not be fooled; they are also great pollinators! Fruit-eating bats will feed from the nectar of flowers and gather a layer of pollen onto themselves as they do so. When collecting nectar from the next flower, they leave some of the pollen from the previous flower! Bats are important in the pollination of many plant species including mango, banana and guava .
Image source unknown
Annoying in your home, but an essential contributor to pollination! Flies are hairy like bees, and trap pollen on their head when they feed on nectar. They carry hundreds of pollen grains from flower to flower . Remember this next time one is buzzing around your indoor plants!
Image copyright Ian Whyte
We bet you would not have guessed this one! Beetles are important pollinators for species such as magnolias and spicebush. They were actually among the first insects to visit flowers! They often eat their way through petals, and defecate within flowers. By feeding and laying eggs within these plants, they pollinate simultaneously. Beetles are also capable of colour-vision - how cool is that !
Image copyright Allan Harris.
Yes, the bugs that buzz near your orange soda are actually helpful to our environment! Wasps have tiny hairs that are not as obvious as that of bees, but they similarly collect pollen when they collect nectar from a flower. This pollen is then transferred to other flowers. Wasps are crucial to the pollination of some plants, including figs .
Image copyright Jackson Kusack
Although similar to butterflies, moths are often overlooked as pollinators. They are often known for being attracted to and therefore buzzing around the light, but they are also attracted to flowers. Because many are nocturnal, you can think of moths as taking the night shift of pollinating! They collect pollen on their legs and body when consuming nectar from flowers. Some moths have specially adapted mouthparts that allow them to reach pollen inside a flower, for example, like the yucca moth. The yucca moth will then form pollen into a sticky ball that pollinates other flowers she visits. Without help from the yucca moth, the yucca flower would not develop into fruit or grow seeds .
Image source unknown
Yes, one of the smallest bird species in the world is also a contributor to pollination. Besides being cute, hummingbirds spread pollen from flower to flower by rubbing along the pollen grains on the flower . They go to each flower to collect nectar to eat. These grains make their way onto the hummingbirds’ body and can be spread from flower to flower.
Image copyright Allan Harris
How you can help
Now that you've learned about some of our lesser-celebrated pollinators, you may be wondering how you can help! Unfortunately, pollinators (including those not on this list) face many threats against them including pesticides, habitat loss and more. So, what can you do? Fortunately, many things!
Plant the right plants
Flies, beetles, moths and bats are attracted to white and pale flowers! Plant white flowers with open structures so these groups have easy access. Flies typically gravitate to flowers that have a stinky smell . Studies have shown they are most attracted to Asteraceae (Daisies), Rosaceae (Roses), and Apiaceae (Umbellifers) families .
Beetles enjoy flowers that have a bowl shape, are strongly fruity and are open during the day . They are attracted to goldenrod (Solidago), spicebush (Lindera) and sunflower (Helianthus) .
Bats look for large and bell shaped flowers to pollinate . They are attracted to night-blooming phlox (Zaluzianskya ovata), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), and goldenrod (Solidago) . It is good to note that most bats are pollinators in warmer climates and can be attracted to different fruits such as mangoes and bananas.
Moths prefer flowers that are in clusters or provide landing platforms that open in late afternoon or night . They particularly like honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifoliaceae), purple coneflowers (Echinea purpurea), petunias (Petunia), and yuccas (Yucca) .
Wasps are attracted to blue, white, purple and yellow flowers! One particular plant they are attracted to is sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) .
Hummingbirds are attracted to red and other bright colours. They also enjoy tubular flowers that produce a lot of nectar, including daylilies (Hemerocalies) . Planting petunias (Petunia), zinnias (Zinnia), and bleeding hearts (Lamprocapnos spectabilis) will bring these pollinator machines to your yard .
Of course, every ecoregion will have different native plants. Before planting, make sure to do some research of native plants in your area that are most suitable for pollinators around you. The Land Between has a number of planting guides specific to our bioregion available here as well as tools and services to help you plant a native garden that fits your unique needs and desires!
Say no to pesticides
Limiting the use of pesticides on your property will also leave a more inviting environment to all pollinators. Pesticides can have devastating effects on our pollinator population, and because pesticides are indiscriminate, applying them to eradicate one species of insect will almost certainly harm other species of insect. This is the case for chemicals labelled as “natural” as well. Consider using more structural solutions if you want to deter unwanted pests. This can be done by planting a variety of native species in your garden as well as managing soil, water and drainage in your garden for optimal growing conditions . Healthy plants are more resistant to pests!
This one is easy, be a lazy gardener! It can be very tempting to remove debris from your garden, such as leaf litter or fallen vegetation and tree stumps. Do not do it! Debris provides pollinators with nesting areas . If you do want to remove leaves from your property, refrain from doing so until well into the spring after pollinators and other wildlife are done overwintering.
You can also build homes for pollinators! You can construct bat boxes to entice bats to stay close by (and out of other pesky areas like your sun umbrellas, barn rafters, etc). Hummingbirds tend to visit homes that have sugar water set up for them. Mixing one part sugar with four parts water creates nectar for hummingbirds. Never use honey, corn syrup, powdered sugar or raw unprocessed sugars, instead use refined white sugar. Fill a hummingbird feeder with this mixture and set it up near trees but away from windows, and watch as the hummingbirds flock to your property! Always be sure you commit to changing the solution every couple of days and disinfecting the feeder weekly and be sure to continue feeding throughout the winter, as hummingbirds will come to expect it .
Spread the word
Educate people around you about the importance of all pollinators and what they can do to support them, as they support us. Knowledge is power!
- “What Is a Pollinator?” National Parks Service, 2018. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/pollinators/what-is-a-pollinator.htm.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Why Is Pollination Important?” US Forest Service, 2021. https://www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/wildflowers/pollinators/importance.
- Randall, Brianna. “The Value of Birds and Bees.” Farmers.gov, June 6, 2022. https://www.farmers.gov/blog/value-birds-and-bees.
- Bat Conservation Trust. “Bats as Pollinators - Why Bats Matter.” Bat Conservation Trust, 2023. https://www.bats.org.uk/about-bats/why-bats-matter/bats-as-pollinators.
- Pain, Stephanie. “How Much Do Flies Help with Pollination?” How Much Do Flies Help With Pollination?, March 8, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-much-do-flies-help-pollination-180977177/.
- United States Department of Agriculture. “Beetle Pollination” Forest Service Shield, 2023. https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/beetles.shtml.
- Benedict, Stu. “Wasps Are Pollinators – Not Just Pests.” Truly Nolen Canada, November 13, 2019. https://www.trulynolen.ca/wasps-are-pollinators-not-just-pests.
- United States Department of Agriculture. “Moth Pollination.” Forest Service Shield, 2022. https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/moths.shtml.
- Five Spot Green Living. “5 Plants that Attract Wasps”. September 27, 2020. https://www.fivespotgreenliving.com/plants-that-attract-wasps
- Grozinger, Christina. “Feeding the Flower Flies: How to Attract Flies to Your Garden.” Penn State Extension, August 26, 2021. https://extension.psu.edu/feeding-the-flower-flies-how-to-attract-flies-to-your-garden.
- Fallon, Candace. “Notes from the Other Orders: Beetles as Pollinators.” Xerces Society, June 16, 2020. https://www.xerces.org/blog/notes-from-other-orders-beetles-as-pollinators.
- Dyer, Mary H. “Plants Pollinated by Bats - Learn about Types of Plants Bats Pollinate.” Gardening Know How, February 9, 2021. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/beneficial/bats-as-pollinators.htm.
- McIntosh, Jamie. “Flowers to Attract Beautiful Moths.” The Spruce, May 18, 2022. https://www.thespruce.com/flowers-for-moth-gardens-1315917.
- Society, National Audubon. “Hummingbird Pollination Practice.” Audubon, February 21, 2023. https://www.audubon.org/news/hummingbird-pollination-practice.
- Johnstone, Gemma. “Discover the Top 15 Flowers for Attracting Hummingbirds.” The Spruce, July 25, 2023. https://www.thespruce.com/top-hummingbird-flowers-386271.
- Saanich. “Alternatives to Pesticides.” https://www.saanich.ca, 2023. https://www.saanich.ca/EN/main/community/natural-environment/pesticide-reduction/alternatives-to-pesticides.html.
- Stauffers. “How to Easily Attract Pollinators to Your Garden.” Stauffers, April 12, 2021. https://www.skh.com/thedirt/attracting-pollinators-to-your-garden/.