Butterflies and Bats and Birds, Oh My!

You know that bees are important to the food supply, but did you know there are other critters that also aide pollination?

Bees, butterflies, birds, beetles, bats. You know the saying, “not all heroes wear capes”? Well, not all pollinators start with a ‘b’ and have wings! In fact, approximately 200,000 different animal species act as pollinators, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The majority of pollinator species are invertebrates, such as butterflies, beetles, moths and bees, but about 1,000 are vertebrates, such as birds, bats and small mammals.

Read on to learn more about five significant non-bee pollinator groups, including a few that may surprise you:

1. Butterflies

Butterflies pollinate similarly to bees, but their long, slender bodies prevent them from picking up pollen as efficiently. Unlike bees, butterflies can see red, and favor brightly colored, fragrant flowers that provide a flat, broad area on which they can land and drink nectar. Want to provide butterflies in your area with some of their favorite nectar choices? Look into planting species in the daisy family (asters, goldenrods, dahlias, marigolds and zinnias), or other red, yellow or orange flowers that grow well in your region.

Close Up of a Monarch Butterfly

2. Flies

Chocolate lovers, this may be your favorite pollinator yet! That’s because a species of fly called a “midge” is a major pollinator of the cocoa tree. Pollinating flies belong to the two-winged insect group and include certain species that act as bee mimics. At first glance, these mimics look similar to bees, such as the hairy, comically long-tongued bombylid fly, but a sharp eye can distinguish a fly’s two wings versus a bee’s four. In sharp contrast from the pleasantly fragrant flowers favored by butterflies, flies prefer more pungent, sour-smelling plants.

3. Hummingbirds

Birds, especially hummingbirds, play an important role in pollination for a variety of flowers, shrubs and trees. In the U.S. in particular, hummingbirds are essential to wildflower pollination. Pollen dusts their faces as they use their long beaks to drink nectar, and, as they rapidly flap their tiny wings, the pollen is transferred from flower to flower. Fun fact: in order to power hearts that pump 1,200 times per minute and wings that beat 70 times per second, hummingbirds must drink several times their weight in nectar every day!

Close Up of a Humming Bird Pollinator

4. Bats and other mammals

Many tropical and desert fruit plants rely on bats for pollination, such as bananas, mangoes, dates, figs, peaches, cashews and avocados. Bats’ favorite flowers are strong-smelling white and other dull-colored, nocturnal flowers, which they pollinate by picking up pollen on their faces as they drink nectar. Most flower-visiting bats are found south of the equator; however, 45 species can be found in the southwestern United States. Next time you’re enjoying a margarita, you can thank bats – they are also responsible for pollinating agave, a main ingredient in tequila.

Lesser known large mammal pollinators include the Madagascan black and white ruffed lemur and the Australian honey possum. When the black and white ruffed lemur sticks its snout and tongue inside a flower of traveler’s trees, an important food source for local people, pollen collects on their fur and is transferred to the next flower they visit. This creature’s size marks this species as the largest pollinator in the world! Other tropical mammal pollinators include bush babies and sugar gliders.

5. Lizards, geckos and skinks

Did you know that even some reptiles can be considered pollinators? Lizards rarely visit and pollinate flowers, with a few exceptions. Found in Brazil, the Noronha skink pollinates the leguminous mulungu tree as it climbs inside flowers to drink nectar. On the island of Mauritius off the coast of Africa, the blue-tailed day gecko is known for saving the rare, endangered Trochetia flower from extinction. Also, in New Zealand, certain breeds of geckos are known for the pollination of flax seeds.

Every animal on this list contributes to pollination in a unique way, but one thing commonly affecting each species is habitat loss.

If you missed out on National Pollinator Week last month, it’s not too late to celebrate by learning more about how to protect native pollinators in your region.