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Meet the Cast of Pollinator Week

By Kailee Slusser and staff on 19. June 2023
Kailee Slusser and staff

Pollination is the transfer of pollen grains from one flower to another that enables plants to develop seeds and reproduce. While some plants can be pollinated by wind, water, or even themselves, it is much more common for pollination to require the (often unintentional) labor of animals. These “pollinators” perform a vital service that much of life on earth quite literally could not live without. So, every June we celebrate National Pollinator Week to give extra thanks to pollinating animals like bees and butterflies. You might be surprised to learn that other animals are pollinators too!



Bees are four-winged insects with hairy bodies and five eyes. They come in so many shapes, sizes, and colors. There are approximately 20,000 bee species worldwide, and less than 5% of these make honey. The majority of bees are solitary and nest in the ground. Bees visit flowers because they eat flower pollen and nectar throughout their life cycle. Pollen readily clings to bees’ hairy bodies, making bees very efficient pollinators. 


Bee Spotlight: Ptiloglossa Mexicana

Ptiloglossa Mexicana bee foraging from flower
Ptiloglossa mexicana is a large, hairy, golden bee found from Texas to northern South America. These nocturnal or crepuscular bees are active near dusk and dawn, and have enlarged ocelli to help them fly in darkness. Ocelli are three small eyes set between the two largest eyes on a bee. To get the most pollen from flowers, these bees grab on and shake their flight muscles to dislodge the powder. We call this buzz pollination and not all bee species can perform it. (Photo: cattraylor, iNaturalist.)



Once butterflies metamorphosize from caterpillars into scaly-winged adult butterflies with clubbed antennae, they develop a taste for nectar. While using their proboscises as nectar straws, pollen can stick to butterfly bodies and transfer to other flowers they land on. Butterflies taste with their feet, so landing on leaves can help females determine if a plant is the right kind and quality for egg laying.


Butterfly Spotlight: Pallid Dotted-Blue

Pallid dotted-blue butterfly on wild buckwheat
The pallid dotted-blue butterfly (Euphilotes pallescens) is found in the southwest United States. These butterflies have a loyal relationship with wild buckwheat plants (Eriogonum sp.). Caterpillars feed on the buckwheat and then emerging adults also drink nectar from their flowers. Adult females are never far from wild buckwheats and most populations can only lay eggs on one particular type of buckwheat. (Photo: xranger2013, iNaturalist.) 



Moths are similar to butterflies in biology and appearance, but they tend to be more plump and fuzzy than butterflies, with tapered or feathery antennae. Like butterflies, moths transfer pollen incidentally while drinking nectar. As a group, moths tend to be nocturnal, making many of them night shift pollinators. Some flowers only open at night, meaning they rely on nighttime pollination. Nocturnal flowers tend to be white or pale to reflect moonlight and can become more fragrant in the darkness to lure moths and other nocturnal pollinators. 


Moth Spotlight: Yucca moth

Yucca moth on yucca flower
Yucca moths (Tegeticula sp. and Parategeticula sp.) are an example of intentional pollinators with an exclusive and symbiotic relationship with Yucca plants. Yucca moths and plants have co-evolved to rely on each other completely, with yucca moths being the plants’ only pollinators and yucca seeds being the caterpillars’ only food source. Female yucca moths purposefully pollinate yucca flowers to support her offspring. After mating, they will collect pollen in a large lump from yucca flowers on one plant, then visit a different plant of the same species to deliver it. They lay eggs directly into the flower's ovary and then push pollen grains exactly where they need to go for pollination to take place. (Photo: apistopanchax, iNaturalist.)



Beetles generally have a hard exoskeleton and a protective set of wing covers for their thin wings. One in four living species on earth is a beetle. As the biggest and most diverse group of organisms out there, beetles vary vastly in appearance, behavior, and ecological role. Not all beetles are pollinators. The beetles that do visit flowers are in search of tasty pollen. Fossil records suggest that beetles were among the first insect pollinators of prehistoric flowering plants in the late Jurassic era, around 150 million years ago. Because of this long history, many of the plants that are beetle-pollinated today have a similarly long lineage. Beetle-pollinated plants tend to have heavily scented, large, cup-like flowers that open during the day with tough petals and leaves. Flower colors range from white and cream to pale green or even burgundy. Flowers they favor often smell spicy, sweet, musky, or fermented, like overripe fruit. Beetles will also eat through leaves and petals, leaving some mess and destruction behind, so beetle-pollinated plants have evolved to have thicker flowers and leaves in order to survive feeding damage. Pollen sometimes sticks to beetle bodies as they move from flower to flower, facilitating pollination.


Beetle Spotlight: Bee-Like Flower Scarab

Beetle that resembles a bee on a flower
The bee-like flower scarab (Trichiotinus piger) is also known as the hairy flower chafer. As these names suggest, this beetle has a hairy body like a bee, making it an efficient pollinator as it chomps on leaves, flowers, and pollen from plant to plant. This beetle is one of the most important pollinators of native magnolias. (Photo: seigmond, iNaturalist.) 



Flies are insects with one pair of wings for flying and a tiny pair of wing-ish halteres that help them stay agile and stable in flight. Flies are another diverse group of insects and not all of them are pollinators. But some do transfer pollen while feeding on pollen and nectar. Flies are famously indiscriminate with tastes and smells. Some flowers are uniquely pollinated by flies because of their putrid or lackluster odors. Flies also tend to pollinate flowers with complex structures and dull colors that other pollinators pass on.


Fly Spotlight: Cobalt Hover Fly

Blue hover fly on flowers
The cobalt hover fly (Pelecinobaccha costata) is a blue species of flower or hover fly, which are known for hovering above flowers and for eating nectar and pollen. As larvae, these flies are predators of scale insects. (Photo: dalien, iNaturalist.) 



Wasps are closely related to bees, tending to be more slender, smooth, and predatory. They hunt prey to feed their larvae, but adults eat flower nectar, fruits, and even sugary excretions produced by their own larvae. Nectar is the reason they visit flowers, sometimes transferring pollen in the process. While their smooth bodies aren’t very efficient at trapping pollen, their relatively minor pollination services shouldn’t be overlooked. 


Wasp Spotlight: Pollen Wasps

Pollen wasp on flower
One group of distinct and unusual wasps have forgone larval diets of animal protein in favor of a lifelong diet of pollen and nectar, similar to bees. These pollen wasps (Masarinae) interact with flower organs while foraging in a way that causes an audible clicking sound and results in pollination. Pollen wasps are found in the western United States and have strongly clubbed antennae. (Photo: seandaniels, iNaturalist.)



Nectar-feeding bats are both flying nocturnal mammals and nighttime pollinators. According to Bat Conservation International, they are attracted to flowers with musty, rotten odors. Bat fur makes for great pollen transfer. Bats sometimes use echolocation to find flowers, which works especially well on bell shaped blossoms and dangling flowers that better reflect the echo of the bat’s ultrasonic call. Bats that mostly eat nectar will sometimes eat insects to complement their diets. 


Bat Spotlight: Lesser Long-Nosed Bat

Lesser long-nosed bat with face covered in pollen from night blooming flower
The lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) feed mainly on the nectar of night-blooming cacti and succulents in the southern United States, Mexico, and Central America. Narrow and elongated snouts and tongues help these bats lap up nectar from the flowers of plants like saguaro and agave. On top of seasonal migrations, these bats can travel over 60 miles to forage. The lesser long-nosed bat was listed as endangered in 1988, but is now the first bat species to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act because of population recovery! (Photo: Bruce D. Taubert, Bat Conservation International.)



As the National Audubon Society knows well, some birds transfer pollen while drinking nectar from flowers. These birds often have long, slender bills perfect for accessing the nectar of tubular flowers. Flowers that are pollinated by birds tend to be bright red, yellow, or orange with lots of nectar. Many birds that drink nectar also eat insects to supplement their diet.


Bird Spotlight: Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Hummingbird with shimmery red neck
The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) beats its wings more than 50 times per second and can migrate all the way from Canada to Costa Rica. Only adult males have shimmering ruby throats, helping them stand out in their courtship displays to females. This and other hummingbirds build nests from plant fibers, lichens, and spider webs. The spider webbing allows the nest to stretch as baby hummingbirds grow. (Photo: Michael Janke, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)



Kailee joined Xerces from Ohio in the summer of 2022, after several years working in marketing and communications for small businesses, nonprofits, and a university. She holds degrees in visual communications management and graphic design, while her other strengths include interactive user experience and audience research.

Kailee was drawn to Xerces because her dream job has always been to amplify environmental and wildlife protection through her creative skills. Her role includes work on the website, social media channels, and various designs.

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