Think You Know Pollinators?
A look at the world’s lesser known pollinator species


It’s National Pollinator Week! We want to celebrate some unique species that you may not think of as pollinators and help broaden the pollination conversation.

When most people think of pollinators, images of buzzing bees are often immediately conjured. For good reason — there are more than 20,000 bee species in the world. But pollinators aren’t just bees. Pollinators are anything that helps carry pollen from the male part of the flower (stamen) to the female part of the same or another flower (stigma). At least 75 percent of all flowering plants on earth are pollinated by insects and animals! This amounts to more than 1,200 food crops and 180,000 different types of plants — plants that help stabilize our soils, clean our air, supply oxygen and support wildlife. So, let’s get to know some pollinators!

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Beetles
Beetles were among the first insects to visit flowers, and they remain essential pollinators today. Fossil records show that beetles were abundant during the Mesozoic (about 200 million years ago). They are especially important pollinators for ancient species such as magnolias and spicebush, as they rely on their sense of smell for feeding and finding a place to lay their eggs.

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Hummingbirds
When it comes to birds, hummingbirds are famed for their pollinating role, but about 2,000 species of pollinating birds exist worldwide. Birds, particularly hummingbirds, honeyeaters and sunbirds accomplish much pollination of deep-throated flowers. While sipping nectar from flowers, 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.

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Bats
Mammals get in on the action too. Bats are probably the most recognized pollinating mammals. Hundreds of plants rely on these busy, flying nectar lovers to spread their pollen at night, especially in tropical and desert environments. Not surprisingly, bats do their pollinating 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.


Lemurs
On the island of Madagascar, black and white ruffed lemurs are the main pollinators of traveler’s trees or traveler’s palm. These trees are typically 40 feet tall. Lemurs use their nimble hands to pull open the tough flower bracts. They stick their long snouts and tongues deep inside the trees’ flowers. Because of this process, they collect pollen on their muzzle and fur and then transport it to the next flower. The resulting fruits are a major source of food. It appears that no other creature has the strength and nimbleness to pollinate the palm. This gives the black and white ruffed lemur the award of the world’s largest pollinator!

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Reptiles
In reptiles, around 40 lizard species are known pollinators, including skinks, geckos and wall lizards. Lizards are important pollinators, in some cases replacing birds and insects in many island systems where resident reptiles tend to include nectar and fruit as part of their diets. Noronha skinks, native to Brazil, drink nectar found in the flowers of the leguminous mulungu tree. This tree blooms during the dry season, and the flowers secrete nectar throughout the day. The skinks climb inside the flower to drink the nectar. While foraging for nectar, parts of the skink’s body contact the anthers and stigmas and pollen adheres to their scales and is transported to other flowers from the same tree and other trees where it deposits pollen.

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These are just the ones we know about. Scientists are still discovering new connections between plants and the animals that help them reproduce. 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.