Important Pollinators

Pollinators are bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other animals which feed from flowers, transferring pollen in the process. Nearly 80%  of all flowering plants need pollinators to transfer pollen in order to produce fruits, seeds and vegetables.  One out of every three bites of food we eat depends on the work of pollinators.

Native Bees - There  are 3,500 native bee species  in North America and they are the most important group of animal pollinators.  Native bees are more effective pollinators than non-native honeybees and their body structure plays a role. Some bees pack pollen into baskets on their legs. Most native bees are like tiny flying dust mops. Pollen clings to hairs on their bodies and easily brushes off. In this way, flowers get pollinated more completely. Native bee behavior can also play a roll in pollination. Unlike honeybees, native orchard bees are willing to fly when it's cold and damp. And while honeybees will visit a single fruit tree, methodically going from flower to flower, orchard bees fly from tree to tree, resulting in the cross-pollination some trees need to set fruit.

The bumble bee is the only true social native bee with worker bees to care for the hive. Bumble bee species are known to pollinate many important food crops. When other pollinators are inactive due to cold temperatures, bumble bees are able to shiver which warms their wings enabling them to fly. Bumble bees also do something called "buzz pollination." They vibrate their flight muscles at the exact frequency needed to shake pollen loose from the plants anthers.  Tomatoes for example, don't really need bees because they self-pollinate but when tomatoes get regular visits from "buzz pollinators", they produce larger fruit and more of it. Bumble bees are also more effective than honeybees at pollinating crops grown in greenhouses. A mated queen is the only bee in the colony to survive over winter.  She emerges from hibernation each spring to start a new hive.

Solitary native bees are also important pollinators. They include squash bees whose pollination includes cucumbers, melons, and squashes; mason bees who pollinate many orchard crops such as apples; green sweat bees who pollinate many flowers including strawberry; and mining bees who are generalists, pollinating many plants. Solitary bees are not aggressive since they have no hive to defend.  They do not sting. 70% of solitary bees nest in the ground. Some species nest in holes excavated by beetles in logs and snags or in hollow plant stems.

European Honeybees are managed by beekeepers in specialized hive boxes. They were imported from Europe in the early 1600's to pollinate introduced crops and for honey and beeswax. Honeybees pollinate many food crops and are also relied upon for honey. While beekeepers do experience hive losses from disease, parasites and pesticides, they are not at risk of extinction. Our native bees, wild and unmanaged, are  extremely important and super-efficient at pollinating many crops and, unlike honeybees, pollinate all of our native plants, trees, and shrubs. Entomologist believe "protecting the honeybee to save our native bees is akin to protecting chickens to save our wild birds."  Environmentally speaking, it is our Native bees that need our help.

Other Important Pollinators - wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, hummingbirds and even bats contribute to the pollination of a variety of plants. Butterflies, while not as efficient as bees, flutter from flower to flower seeking nectar while carrying pollen.  They like bright red, orange, yellow, and purple flowers. Moths take over pollination on the night shift, seeking fragrant night bloomers in white or pale colors to reflect moonlight. For every butterfly you see pollinating during the day, 19 moths are actively pollinating at night. Flies that sport stripes as bee mimics to fool predators are not like our common housefly pest.  They prefer less showy flowers that other pollinators pass by. Among these "respectable" flies are the hoverfly, flower fly and midge. After bees, flies are the second most important pollinator of many flowers. Beetles pollinate 52 plant species in North America. They are very beneficial insects for both pollination and for controlling pest insects.