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Meet the unexpected pollinators

Do you know what pollinates these 3 plants? L to R, Image of Encephalartos lebomboensis,  Purple-throated carib feeding at a flower by Charlesjsharp, Banana flower by Ruestz, all via Wikimedia Commons
Do you know what pollinates these 3 plants? L to R, Image of Encephalartos lebomboensis, Purple-throated carib feeding at a flower by Charlesjsharp, Banana flower by Ruestz, all via Wikimedia Commons

Pollination – where insects fertilise plants by moving pollen from flower to flower – is an essential process for life on Earth. Many plants rely on pollination to produce fruit and seeds and reproduce, and many other insects and animals – including us humans – rely on these plants for food. Just think – all those apples you eat? They wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for the insects that pollinate them.

It’s one of those hidden processes that we often take for granted, but without it life would be very different and difficult. In fact, it’s been estimated that if bees died out, the cost of having to pollinate all our food crops by hand could be as much as $90,000,000,000, and that’s not to mention the fact that there are a lot of wild crops that could also be at risk. Bees themselves, one of the best known and most important pollinators, are in decline (and that’s something that you can help with, by planting bee friendly gardens like the Richard Bonnington primary school).

But although bees are the most well known pollinators out there, there are actually lots of other insects, and a few animals, that are also excellent pollinators. Here

Butterflies and moths

An Australian painted lady with its proboscis extended during feeding. Image by fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au  via Wikimedia Commons
An Australian painted lady with its proboscis extended during feeding. Image by fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au via Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies and moths are part of the order Lepidoptera, and since they often feed on nectar it comes as no surprise that they can also act as pollinators. Yucca plants, tobacco plants and some beautiful species of orchid are pollinated by butterflies and moths. Some of these plants have evolved a long, narrow tube within the flower which has evolved to suit the long unfurling proboscis (like a tongue) which they extend down the trumpet to reach the tasty nectar they feed on. Like with bees, this means the butterflies or moths have to land on the flower, and in doing so often get laden with pollen.

Beetles

Images L to R: Image of Encephalartos lebomboensis, Beetle by Udo Schmidt, Peace Lily by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) all Creative Commons via Wikipedia
Images L to R: Image of Encephalartos lebomboensis, Beetle by Udo Schmidt, Peace Lily by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) all Creative Commons via Wikipedia

Beetles of various species can also be pollinators of plants. Many feed on nectar, pollen or the flowers themselves, and as they pass from plant to plant they pick up pollen on their legs and bodies as they move. The plants they pollinate don’t look quite like the typical plants you might imagine pollinators go for. Plants from the Aracae family have a long central spike with a large modified petal-like leaf around it – peace lilies are one popular example. Zamiaceae are a type of cycad or fern-like plant with sporophylls (these plants produce spores, not pollen) around the centre of the plant. With both of these types of plant, beetles will pick up pollen as they crawl in amongst the leaves and flowers to find food.

Hummingbirds

Purple-throated carib feeding at a flower by Charlesjsharp on Wikimedia Commons
Purple-throated carib feeding at a flower by Charlesjsharp on Wikimedia Commons

These beautiful, tiny birds with their iridescent feathers and long narrow beaks, are also pollinators. They feed on the nectar of flowers that have long narrow trumpets, which is why they have long beaks to reach down to the tasty stuff. But as they hover close to the flower, pollen brushes off and gets caught on the features, and is then deposited when they move onto the next flower. It works in a similar fashion to bees and other pollinating insects, except that in this cast, it’s a bird doing the pollinating.

Bats

Image from http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/12/15/high-five-for-pollinators-busy-bees-bats-and-butterflies/
Image from http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/12/15/high-five-for-pollinators-busy-bees-bats-and-butterflies/

Bats as pollinators?! Surprised? There are actually a huge number of plants, particularly in the tropics, that rely on bats to spread their pollen from plant to plant and you’re familiar with lots of them. Mangoes, bananas and guavas are all pollinated by bats.

Because bats are nocturnal, these plants will tend to bloom at night. They’ll also be large, to allow bats to access the nectar and brush against the stamens, and will also have a strong smell to attract them, usually of ripe fruit.

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