Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

That’s Not A Bee! Unusual Pollinator Species

SHARE

Plant pollination is serious work. Here are some of the other supporting species that make it happen!

Hummingbird Moth

Photo by: jeffreyw [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

When we think of pollinators, it’s often of fuzzy, yellow-dusted bees alighting on vibrant flower petals in search of nectar. For good reason — there are 20,000 bee species in the world, and when it comes to helping plants reproduce, many of them are very busy. But they aren’t the only animals moving pollen from the stamen of one flower to the stigma of another. Earth is home to a host of weird and unusual pollinators that ensure both food crops and wild flowering plants complete their life cycle.

Take the chocolate midges — small flies no bigger than poppy seeds, and the primary pollinators of cacao plants. The intricate petals of the dime-sized flowers curl down over the plant’s stamen where the pollen is made, making it difficult for larger pollinators to access. It takes many midges to gather pollen and fertilize another flower. They toil away at dusk and dawn and prefer dense shady rainforest habitats like those in the Amazon basin. Without them, chocolate would be much harder to come by.

While chocolate midges give us something we love, mosquitos give us frantic behavior and itchy welts. But they too can be pollinators. For example, the snow pool mosquito — found throughout Canada, much of the northern US and Alaska — pollinates the blunt leaved bog orchid. While seeking the plant’s nectar, sticky pollen adheres to the mosquito’s head and eyes, which can make it look like it has one or two yellow horns. Makes sense, because they bite like little devils.

No one wants to hang out with mosquitos, but you might be willing to tolerate one or two if you have a chance to watch a hummingbird moth. These daytime flyers hover in front of long-necked flowers, where they unroll their crazy long tongues, insert them inside and sip the nectar, collecting pollen as they go. With their yellowish-brown or green and black bodies, and (often) clear, red-framed wings that sound like their namesake, people are sometimes confused by what they are looking at. Both the Snowberry Clearwing and the Hummingbird Clearwing are common species in North America.

A clearwing moth with Verbena Bonairensis. Photo by Dwight Sipler

There are many more examples of insects that move pollen around, but non-insect pollinators deserve some attention, too. For example, there are about 2,000 species of pollinating birds worldwide, including honeycreepers, honeyeaters, sunbirds, and some parrots. With its bright green, red, blue, orange and yellow plumage, one that really stands out is the rainbow lorikeet, native to Australia and Indonesia. While sipping nectar from flowers like those of the yellow gum, pollen attaches to their foreheads and throat, and even to tiny fingers on their tongue called papillae where it hitches a ride to the next flower.

Collared sunbird, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Photo by Charles J Sharp.

Mammals get in on the action too. Bats are probably the best-known, responsible for pollinating over 500 plant species, including types of mango, banana, durian, guava and agave (used to make tequila). Bats work at night and are attracted to pale flowers, unlike many of their daytime colleagues. Some, like the Mexican long-tongued bat, are really specialized for the job with a long skinny tongue that can reach into tube-shaped flowers. Pollinating bats are impressive, but not the only mammals to get the job done. The ruffed lemur, a black and white primate from Madagascar, gets pollen on its snout while gorging on nectar from traveler’s palms. And then there’s the much smaller honey possum, a tiny Australian marsupial less that 3.5 inches long that wiggles its elongated nose and mouth into Banksia and eucalyptus flowers to feast on pollen and nectar.

Mexican Long-Tongued Bat.

Even lizards pollinate. The sleek Noronha skink of the island Fernando de Noronha off of northeastern Brazil appears to pollinate mulungu trees, known for their fabulously weird orangey-pink flowers. Pollen collects on its scales when it’s sipping nectar and brushes up against the flowers’ stamens. The same is thought to be true of snow skinks in Tasmania, who get pollen on their scales after tearing apart the peachy red flowers of the Richea scoparia plant.

The list of non-bee pollinators goes on and on, including slugs, butterflies, wasps and many species of beetles. And those are just the ones we know about—scientists are still discovering new connections between plants and the animals that help them reproduce. And with bees so vulnerable to environmental change, a better appreciation of all pollinators and the roles they play will be essential to better crop management and the protection of wild plants in the future.

Features

Clip | Citizen Science Story: Bird Cams Lab
American Spring LIVE - Behind the Scenes
Pre-show Special
Spring Flowers
Viewer Spring Flower Photos
American Spring LIVE - Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery
Lamb Birth
Clip | Watch a Lamb Being Born
Bear Cubs
Clip | Bear Cub Check Up
Yellow Butterfly
How to Garden for Butterfly Life Cycles
Contributors Showcasing the Science of Spring
Wolf at Rest
America’s Best Idea at Work: 45 Years of Wolf Science and Conservation in Voyageurs National Park, MN
Rainy Springs Bring Disaster for Nesting Tree Swallows
Baby Lamb
Clip | Watch a Baby Lamb Take Its First Steps
Living With The Enemy – How Some Birds Keep their Young Safe
American Spring LIVE – Behind the Scenes
American Spring LIVE - Partners
Station Partners
Spring is LIVE Across America!
Shadows
Shadow Season
Pete Marra on Migrating Birds
Facebook Live with Peter Marra
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Milkweeds and Monarchs 101
Giant Sequoia
Clip | Sequoia Fun Facts
Full Episode | American Spring LIVE: Episode 1 - Birth and Rebirth
FB Live with Dr Rae Wynn Grant
Facebook Live with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant
Meet Phil Torres – Field Biologist, American Spring LIVE
Mustard Seed Flowers
Clip | 6 Facts to Show Your Spring Savvy
Thor Hanson
Meet Thor Hanson – Science Correspondent, American Spring LIVE
Spring Bird
Spring Birdsong Playlist
Sheep from Meadowcroft Farm
Clip | Meet Nanne Kennedy & Her Sheep
Measuring and tagging a bear
For Scientists, Tag is a Serious Game
Time Lapse of Winter to Spring
Clip | Spring Time-lapse
Facebook Live with Voyageurs Wolf Project
Monarch Butterfly
How to Give Monarch Butterflies a Head-Start This Spring
Citizen Science - SciStarter
Citizens, Start Your Science!
Inside Look: American Spring LIVE
Clip | Inside Look
Sounds of Spring Spotify Playlist
Sounds of Spring – Our American Spring LIVE Playlist
American Spring LIVE Homepage
Full Episode | American Spring LIVE: Episode 1 - Birth and Rebirth

© 2021 WNET. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.