by Rausa McManus, EMGV
We’re all familiar with bees and butterflies as the helpful pollen transferring insects that keep our vegetables producing, our flowers in bloom, and support plant growth in natural settings. While these are the most common pollinators, there are many other insects that are also beneficial pollinators. Among these are wasps, ants, flies, midges, mosquitos, moths and beetles. Let’s take a look at how they operate.
Though wasps are not as effective as their bee relatives, they do play a role in this important task. The most famous of the pollinator wasps are the fig wasps. Specifically, they pollinate the mini-flowers which bloom inside the pear-shaped pod that eventually matures into the fruit. These fig wasps are so important in the fertilization process that wild figs would most likely disappear without them. They are also crucial to a species of orchid called Epipactus helleborine. Interestingly, this orchid emits a chemical with the odor of a caterpillar infestation, therefore attracting the wasps to their flowers.
Ants, a fairly uncommon pollinator, have two methods of spreading pollen. As they walk between flowers, they facilitate pollination. Though not very efficient, this does help with a small number of plants. In North Carolina, worker ants diligently walk pollen grains between the flowers of elf orpine (Diamorpha smallii) a tiny plant that lives on granite and Sandstone outcrops. Though they are hard workers, ants can also harm the pollen they carry with an antibiotic they produce called myrmicacin. This antibiotic may reduce the pollen’s viability, making the ants’ work even less effective.
Flies, especially hoverflies or the family Syrphidae, are also called flower flies because of their unique attraction to blooming plants. There are approximately 6,000 species in this family alone that are known pollinators. They use their proboscis, or extended mouthpart, to reach the nectar of elongated flowers.
Another added benefit is that most hoverflies have predatory larvae. Hoverflies lay their eggs on plants near aphid colonies; the maggots travel through the aphid colonies and devour them. If you look closely at any plant with a lot of aphids present, you may likely also see hoverfly maggots, providing a natural pesticide to the plants they visit. Their most important role is in that of fruit crop pollination, including apples, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, peaches, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Though not the only family of pollinating flies, hoverflies are the rock stars of the pollinator flies.
Larva and adult photo credit: https://entomology.ces.ncsu.edu/2015/06/hoverflies-bee-mimics-provide pollination-and-biocontrol-services.
Without the next family of flies, the world would be void of chocolate treats. Let’s take a look at midges, the type of fly that is primarily responsible for the spread of cacao pollen, therefore absolutely crucial in chocolate production. Midges are the only known pollinators attracted to the flowers of the cacao tree, therefore enabling the cacao to bear fruit. Due to their miniature size, midges can get into the tiny cacao flowers. They also coordinate their efforts with the flowers’ biorhythms by entering the blossoms at night while they are fully open. Thank you, midges!
The otherwise pesky mosquitos, known for their Dracula-like habit on humans and other animals, are also big fans of nectar. Female mosquitos who are laying eggs prefer to feast on blood, but the males drink the sweet nectar of flowers for energy to swarm in search of the mates. Though they most commonly pollinate orchids, they are known to help with other plants as well.
Though butterflies are lovely and garner a lot of attention in our gardens, their counterparts, the moths, also make a contribution. Curiously, they frequent white, fragrant flowers such as jasmine. Perhaps this is because they are creatures of the night and attracted to the light color. There are many moth varieties that populate the garden such as the hawk, sphinx, owlet, underwing and geometry moths. One that is also common is the hummingbird moth (Hemaris sp.)which imitates the action of a hummingbird. Another variety, the yucca moth (Tegeticula sp.), has a fascinating symbiotic relationship with the yucca. After the female deposits her eggs inside the flower, the moth transfers pollen from the flower’s pollen chamber to the stigma chamber, enabling the flower to make seeds. This is in perfect timing with the hatching of the moth’s hatching, which feed on the seeds the mother moth made possible by her actions.
Beetles are the last group of pollinators we will examine and among the oldest ones known. About 150 million years ago, at least 50 million years before bees existed, beetles were carrying on the work of pollination. They still hold that same job title today. Through uncovering fossils, there is evidence beetles originally pollinated cycads. Today they still pollinate descendants of cycads, mostly magnolias, lilies and other fragrant blossoms. Unfortunately, though, beetles do not have the same table manners as other sipping pollinators. They chew and and eat the plants they pollinate and leave messy residue as evidence. Some of the beetle families native to the Piedmont are weevils (Curculionidae sp.), sap beetles (Nitidulidae sp.), and the tumbling flower beetle (Mordella sp.).
So, bees and butterflies, as important as they are as pollinators, have a lot of help from a variety of other insects.
Resources & Further Reading
Watts, Sue. “Plants for Pollinators.” The Garden’s Gate, www.clemson.edu, September-December 2019.
Yong, Ed. “Orchid lures in pollinating wasps with promise of fresh meat.” Discover Magazine, May 12, 2008.
Hadley, Debbie. “7 Insect Pollinators that Aren’t Bees or Butterflies.” ThoughtCo., July 20, 2019.
Ballew, Justin. “Native Pollinators”. Home and Garden Information Center, www.clemson.edu., January 19, 2018. https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/native-pollinators/