The Buzz on Pollinators

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Katherine Wall
Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Katherine Wall

Picture yourself standing in a meadow bursting with wildflowers, seeing the first cherry blossoms after a long winter, or enjoying a ripe, juicy blueberry. These delights and many more wouldn’t exist without a group of animals called pollinators.

Pollinators are creatures that help plants reproduce by spreading a powdery material called pollen among flowers of the same species. Animals, primarily bees, pollinate a majority of fruits and vegetables (non-grain crops) used in agriculture. Pollinators don’t just help plants; they rely on the rewards plants provide, such as energy-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen, to survive and reproduce.

Meet the Pollinators

There are many different types of pollinators in Massachusetts, from native bees to beetles to hummingbirds.

Hoverfly © Gilles Gonthier 2006
Hoverfly © Gilles Gonthier 2006
Notch-tipped Flower Longhorn beetle © Mary Keim (via Flickr)
Notch-tipped flower longhorn beetle © Mary Keim (via Flickr)
European honey bee  on flower © David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org
European honey bee on flower © David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org
tiger swallowtail butterfly © John Galluzzo,  Mass Audubon
tiger swallowtail butterfly © John Galluzzo, Mass Audubon
Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Linda Lapre
Ruby-throated Hummingbird © Linda Lapre

Flies

Some flies, such as flower flies and bee flies, are important pollinators. They visit flowers to consume pollen and nectar; in the process, sticky pollen becomes attached to their bodies. Many flies mimic wasps and bees in their shape and coloration, partly so that predators will avoid them.

Beetles

The fossil record suggests that beetles were the first pollinators of flowering plants. Adult beetles feed on pollen and the flower itself. Pollen becomes trapped on their bodies and spreads between flowers.

Bees & Wasps

Besides European honeybees, there are more than 365 bee species documented in Massachusetts. Adult bees eat nectar; they feed their young a mix of pollen and nectar.

Wasps visit flowers to consume energy-rich nectar and sometimes pollen. As predators, wasps spend most of their time looking for insects to feed their young while foraging at flowers.

Butterflies & Moths

Butterflies and moths lay eggs on or near the vegetation they eat as caterpillars; these food plants are known as “host plants.” As adults, they consume nectar from flowers and sugar from sap and fruit. Most butterflies and moths pollinate flowers that produce lots of nectar, such as native milkweed and columbine.

Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

This bird needs a great deal of food to keep energized, so hummingbirds visit flowers that provide a lot of nectar, such as the cardinal flower. Pollen sticks to the feathers around the bird’s bill and face and is carried to the next flower.