7 Insect Pollinators That Aren't Bees or Butterflies

01
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What Are Pollinators?

Pollinator garden sign.
Pollinator habitats are important for all pollinators, not just bees!. Flickr user Akos Kokai (CC license)

The most common plant pollinators, the insects that deliver pollen from plant to plant, are bees and butterflies. The transfer of plant pollen to a female species of the plant enables fertilization and the growth of new plants. Pollinators are essential for continued plant growth in the wild. There are seven insect pollinators other than bees and butterflies that also help spread plant seeds and enable plant growth.

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02
of 08

Wasps

Tarantula hawk wasp on flowers.
The tarantula hawk wasp feeds on pollen and nectar. NPS/Brad Sutton (public domain)

Some wasps do visit flowers. As an insect group, on the whole, they are generally thought to be less efficient pollinators than their bee cousins. Wasps lack the body hairs that bees have to carry pollen and so are not as well equipped for carting pollen from flower to flower. There are a few wasp species that do get the job done.

There is a hard-working pollinating group among the wasps, the subfamily Masarinae also called pollen wasps, that are known to feed nectar and pollen to their young.

An orchid called the broad-leaved helleborine, also known as Epipactis helleborine, relies on two species of wasps— common wasps (V. vulgaris) and European wasps (V. germanica)— for their pollination services. Researchers recently discovered this orchid releases a chemical cocktail that smells like a caterpillar infestation to lure the predatory wasps to their flowers.

The most notable wasp pollinators are the fig wasps, which pollinate the tiny flowers inside the developing fig fruit. Without fig wasps, there would be a very low likelihood for figs in the wild.

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03
of 08

Ants

Ant pollinator.
An ant pollinates a San Fernando Valley spineflower. Colleen Draguesku/USFWS (CC license)

Pollination by ants is relatively rare, but it does occur. Most pollinators can fly, enabling them to distribute pollen grains over a wider area, and thus promote genetic diversity among the plants they visit. Since ants walk from flower to flower, any pollen exchange conducted by ants will be limited to a small population of plants. 

Formica argentea worker ants have been observed carrying pollen grains between flowers of cascade knotweed, also known as Polygonum cascadense. Other species of Formica ants distribute pollen among the flowers of elf orpine, a compact herb that grows on granite outcrops. In Australia, ants pollinate several orchids and lilies effectively.

Overall, as a family of insects, ants may not be the best pollinators. Ants produce an antibiotic called myrmicacin, which is thought to reduce the viability of the pollen grains they carry. 

Source:

  • The Ecology and Evolution of Ant-Plant Interactions, by Victor Rico-Gray, Paulo S. Oliveira.

04
of 08

Flies

A syrphid fly on a flower.
Syrphid flies are pollinators and often bee mimics. Flickr user S. Rae (CC license)

Many flies prefer to feed on flowers, and in doing so, provide essential pollination services to the plants they visit. Nearly half of the 150 fly families visit flowers. Flies are particularly important and efficient pollinators in environments where bees are less active, such as in alpine or arctic habitats.

Among the pollinating flies, hover flies, from the family Syrphidae, are the reigning champions. The roughly 6,000 species known worldwide are also called flower flies, for their association with flowers, and many are bee or wasp mimics. Some hover flies have a modified mouthpart, also called a proboscis, made for siphoning nectar from long, narrow flowers. And as an added bonus, about 40 percent of hover flies bear larvae that prey on other insects, which thereby provide pest control services to the plant being pollinated. Hover flies are the workhorses of the orchard. They pollinate a variety of fruit crops, such as apples, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

Hover flies are not the only pollinating flies out there. Other pollen-toting flies include some carrion and dung flies, tachinid flies, bee flies, small-headed flies, March flies and blow flies.

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05
of 08

Midges

Pollinating midge.
Some midges forego blood meals and focus on flower nectar for food. Flickr user Fred and Jean (CC license)

Put plainly, without midges, a type of fly, there would be no chocolate. Midges—specifically midges in the Ceratopogonidae and Cecidomyiidae families—are the only known pollinators of the tiny, white flowers of the cacao tree, enabling the tree to produce fruit. 

No bigger than the size of pinheads, midges seem to be the only creatures that can work their way into the intricate flowers to pollinate. They are most active in their pollination duties at dusk and dawn, in sync with the cacao flowers, which fully open right before sunrise.

06
of 08

Mosquitoes

Mosquito on a flower.
A mosquito taking nectar from a flower. Wikimedia Commons/Abhishek727 (a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en">CC license)

Mosquitoes are best known for feeding on blood, but those are only the female mosquitoes. And, bloodsucking only happens when the female mosquito has eggs to lay.

A mosquito's favorite food is nectar. Males drink sugary flower nectar to energize themselves for their swarming flights, when they prepare to search for mates. Females also drink nectar prior to mating. Any time an insect drinks nectar, there is a good chance it is going to collect and transfer a little pollen. Mosquitoes are known to pollinate certain orchids. Scientists suspect that they pollinate other plants as well.

07
of 08

Moths

Hummingbird moth on verbena flowers.
A hummingbird moth takes nectar from verbena flowers. Flickr user Photofarmer (CC license)

Butterflies seem to get a bulk of the credit as pollinators, but moths do their share of carting pollen between flowers, too. Most moths are nocturnal. These night-flying pollinators tend to visit white, fragrant flowers, like jasmine. 

Hawk and sphinx moths are perhaps the most visible moth pollinators. Many gardeners are familiar with the sight of a hummingbird moth hovering and darting from flower to flower. Other moth pollinators include owlet moths, underwing moths, and geometer moths.

Naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin hypothesized that a comet orchid, also known as Angraecum sesquipedale, with an exceptionally long nectary, or part of the flower that secretes nectar, would require the aid of a moth with an equally long proboscis. Darwin was mocked for his hypothesis, but proven correct when a hawk moth (Xanthopan morganii), was discovered using its foot-long proboscis to sip the plant's nectar.

Perhaps the best-known example of a moth-pollinated plant is the yucca plant, which requires the help of yucca moths to pollinate its flowers. The female yucca moth deposits her eggs inside the chambers of the flower. Then, she collects pollen from the plant's pollen chamber, forms it into a ball, and puts the pollen into the flower's stigma chamber, thereby pollinating the plant. The pollinated flower can now produce seeds, which it timed to when the yucca moth larvae hatch and need to feed on them.

 

08
of 08

Beetles

Pennsylvania leatherwing beetle.
A Pennsylvania leatherwing beetle on a flower. L. Andrews/Wayne National Forest (CC license)

Beetles were among the earliest prehistoric pollinators. They began visiting flowering plants about 150 million years ago, a good 50 million years earlier than bees. Beetles continue to pollinate flowers today.

Fossil evidence suggests beetles first pollinated ancient flowers, cycads. Modern day beetles seem to prefer pollinating the close descendants of those ancient flowers, primarily magnolias and water lilies. The scientific term for pollination by beetle is known as cantharophily.

Although there are not many plants pollinated primarily by beetles, the flowers that do depend on them are often fragrant, giving off spicy, fermented scents or decaying scents that attract beetles.

Most beetles that visit flowers do not sip nectar. Beetles often chew and consume parts of the plant they pollinate and leave their droppings behind. For this reason, beetles are referred to as mess-and-soil pollinators. Beetles that are believed to provide pollination services include members of many families: soldier beetles, jewel beetles, blister beetles, long-horned beetles, checkered beetles, tumbling flower beetles, soft-winged flower beetles, scarab beetles, sap beetles, false blister beetles and rove beetles.