Pollinators are animals that transfer pollen between flowers. Many pollinators are insects, such as bees. However, birds, mammals, and a variety of other animals can also be pollinators! Pollinators are key members of most terrestrial (on-land) ecosystems. Pollinated plants produce food that feeds other members of the ecosystem. Pollinators also help humans because they pollinate many of our food crops. For example, a tomato could not form from a tomato plant’s flower without being pollenated by a bee!
Plants and pollinators have symbiotic relationships – long-lasting, close relationships between two living beings. A pollinator and a plant have a specific type of symbiotic relationship called mutualism, in which the relationship benefits everyone involved. The pollinator gets a tasty meal of nectar. The plant gets pollinated so it can make seeds. It’s a win-win!
Bees & Wasps
Although there are many different animal pollinators, bees (especially honeybees) are usually considered the most important pollinator due to their key role in many ecosystems and their ability to pollinate a wide variety of different plants, including many food crops. Bees rely on flowers as their food source – they fly from flower to flower collecting nectar and pollen.
There are many types of bees that pollinate, including honeybees, bumblebees, and solitary bees. Surprisingly, wasps are also sometimes pollinators. That’s right – while wasps are often thought of as being unfriendly pests, they actually play very important roles in their ecosystems!
Butterflies & Moths
Butterflies drink nectar through a long proboscis – a straw-like mouth part that can reach deeply into flowers. Consequently, butterflies often pollinate deeply tube-shaped flowers. They are attracted to colorful, clustered flowers that are open in the daytime.
On the other hand, nocturnal moths pollinate night-time opening flowers. Moths also have long proboscises and can reach into deeply tubular flowers like their butterfly relatives. In fact, moths can have some of the longest proboscises in the world, such as the storied Darwin’s hawkmoth. As the tale goes, Charles Darwin came across a species of orchid in Madagascar that contains nectar at the end of a foot-long tube. Darwin hypothesized that a species of butterfly or moth with a foot-long proboscis must exist, in order to drink nectar from and pollinate this flower. Some laughed at this idea, but many years later, scientists identified a species of hawkmoth in Madagascar with a foot-long proboscis, just as Darwin predicted!
More insect pollinators: beetles, ants, & beyond!
Bees, wasps, butterflies, and moths are just four of the many insects that pollinate plants. Some flies are also pollinators, as are some beetles and ants! Many of these insects may inadvertently pollinate flowers as they crawl across them, picking up pollen on their bodies.
Hummingbirds are by far the most common and well-known bird that pollinates. They drink nectar through their long beaks, and can pollinate tube-shaped flowers, just like butterflies. It is well known that hummingbirds especially love red flowers. You may see people hanging red plastic hummingbird feeders in their yards, designed to attract these charismatic pollinators. Hummingbirds are even known to fly directly into people wearing red, mistaking their clothing for a cluster of tasty red flowers.
In certain ecosystems, other types of birds such as parrots may also sometimes pollinate.
Did you know that bats can be pollinators? While bats are best known for their ability to catch and eat insects using echolocation, some bats prefer eating fruit and flower nectar! Bats are nocturnal and pollinate at night, like moths. But as some of the largest pollinators, bats usually prefer bigger flowers that produce larger volumes of nectar. Agave, bananas, and some cacti are all popular among bats!
Even more unusual pollinators
The list does not stop here! There are many more unique pollinators out there. Some reptiles pollinate. As do some slugs. Even a variety of mammals, such as some lemurs and sugar gliders are known to pollinate plants in their ecosystems. There is certainly no shortage in the diversity of pollinators found around the world!
Try this free pollinator game for your classroom…
Are you looking to teach your students about the diversity of pollinators? Here’s a game you can try in your classroom! Print out pictures of a variety of pollinators and tape them to students’ backs. Tell students that all the animals on their backs can pollinate plants. Then, instruct the students to ask each other yes/no questions about the animals on their backs until they can guess them correctly.
Freebie: for this game, I’ve put together 18 printable pollinator cards, plus directions. Click here to download the free cards and game!
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References and Further Reading
- California Academy of Sciences (n.d.). Darwin’s Hawk Moth. Available: https://www.calacademy.org/explore-science/darwin%E2%80%99s-hawkmoth
- Houston Zoo (2018). Unusual Pollinators and the Plants They Love. Available: https://www.houstonzoo.org/blog/unusual-pollinators-plants-love/
- Mize, A. (2018). Lizards, mice, bats, and other vertebrates are important pollinators too. The Ecological Society of America. Available: https://www.esa.org/blog/2018/04/04/vertebrate-polinator-metaanalysis/
- USDA Forest Service (n.d.). Unusual Animal Pollinators. Available: https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/unusual.shtml
- USDA Forest Service (n.d.). Who are the pollinators? Available: https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/index.shtml