Do you enjoy a hot cup of coffee in the morning? Or a perfectly ripe watermelon for dessert? Perhaps a tasty blueberry, strawberry, and banana smoothie? If so, then thank a pollinator.
Pollinators play a vital role in supporting commercial food production. Approximately 75% of food crops depend on pollination to some extent, but pollinators also provide the bulk of the pollination for over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. The honeybees, specifically the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, is the world’s top pollinator and responsible for one-third of the food we eat. However, it is only one of many pollinator species.
Who are the pollinators?
There are three major categories of pollinators: birds, bats, and insects. Oh My!
Birds and bats
These two-winged mammals are important pollinators but tend to be more specialized to larger flowering plants which typically require more pollen. Birds are expert pollinators of many of Florida’s wildflowers while also playing an important role in transporting and dispersing seeds. Bats are very effective at pollinating nighttime flowering plants such as mangoes and bananas.
But, by far, insects are the most common and numerous of the pollinators.
Insect pollinators come from four different orders, some of which might be surprising.
Order Hymenoptera: bees, wasps, ants
The honeybee definitely wins the gold medal when it comes to pollination, but there are multiple species of bees as well as wasps, flies, moths, butterflies, and beetles that are efficient and effective pollinators.
- Native bees
Native bees are very fast and efficient pollinators, and most are solitary bees. There are approximately 315 species of native bees in Florida, with at least 29 endemic bee species. Solitary bees do not produce honey or wax. Instead of a colony hive, solitary bees rear their larvae in tunnels they dig into the ground, into wood, in chambers made from leaves or the hollow of a plant stem. They will even use areas as simple as crevices under bark or rock. Since there is no colony to defend, solitary bees tend to be less aggressive and less likely to sting.
Native bees are especially important when it comes to Florida native plants. Although honeybees are attracted to the pollen and nectar of native plants, there is a unique relationship between many native plants and native bees in plant pollination, as well as the ability of the bee to extract nectar from the flowers.
There are a large variety of wasp species in Florida, however only a few species are effective pollinators. Unlike bees, wasps (wasps, hornets, yellowjackets) lack the abundant, branched hairs on their legs and abdomen that are necessary for carrying large amounts of pollen between plants. Although their role as pollinators is minor, they do play an important role as conservation biological control agents, meaning they do a great job as natural pest control agents!
Order Lepidoptera: butterflies and moths
Although we see them actively foraging around flowers, butterflies and moths are quite ineffective pollinators when compared to other insects. Since they stand high on their legs and lack specialized structures for collecting pollen, they pick up and move only a small amount of pollen between plants. However, that does not mean their beauty and grace should be overlooked or undervalued!
Order Diptera: flies and mosquitoes
This group of insects are frequent flower visitors and effective pollinators. Although we think of flies as pest, but they do visit flowers quite often for many reasons – to gather nectar or pollen, to mate, or (in some species) to lay eggs. This group includes the families:
Bombyliidae: long-tongue flies
The family of long-tongued flies are considered general plant pollinators. They feed on the same flower types that bees do. Some species, such as bee flies, look very much like bees and are called ‘bee mimics’. They are very fast and agile flies, can hover in the air, and, if not convincing enough, they also make buzzing sounds like bees.
Tachinidae: tachinid flies
The family of tachinid flies are generalist nectar feeders. They have long bristle-like hair on their abdomen and the pollen collects on their tongue, legs, and body as they feed. This pollen is then transferred to another flower as the fly moves between flowers. The larvae of tachinid flies are parasitic and feed on other insects. They are particularly fond of feeding on caterpillars.
Syrphidae: syrphid (flower) flies
The flower flies have a wide variety of color and are also known as hoverflies or syrphid flies. The adults are non-selective pollinators which have the ability to hover as well as even fly backwards. Adults are pollinators where the larvae are natural predators and feed on other soft-bodied insects.
Order Coleoptera: beetles
Beetles are a very large and very old group of pollinators. They were busy pollinating cycads before the dinosaurs roamed. They are thought to pollinate some of the earliest flowering plants. It is no surprise they are primary pollinators of magnolias, water lilies and anise – the modern-day descendants of primitive flowering plants.
How to Help
Since native bees are mainly solitary, they cannot be managed in a hive like the European honeybee. But, there still are a few things that will help support our native bees:
- Buy or build a bee nesting box! This can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. The important thing is that there are a variety of sizes of tubes and substrates in the box that meet the need of the different pollinator species. Here are links that explain the nesting needs of the bees and how to build a pollinator hotel:
- Bee-friendly with your choice of plants. Have multiple varieties of flowering plants that flower at different times of the year so food is always available.
- Pass on the pesticides. Avoid or try to minimize spraying pesticides around your plants, especially when in bloom. If an application is necessary, apply during evening hours when pollinators and beneficials are not active. And always follow label instructions.
- Opt for alternatives. When an application is necessary, biorational pesticides (insecticidal soaps, horticulture oils, microbials) are much better options than conventional chemicals. Biopesticides have fast break-down and no residual making them a safer choice when considering human, wildlife, and environmental health.