Beyond Honey Bees: A Closer Look at Other Power Pollinators

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Butterflies are predominantly nectar feeders, but they do not accomplish much in the way of pollination. (Monarch shown feeding on lantana flowers.) Photo by Charlie Morey

When you think of pollinators, European honeybees probably come to mind. Because they live in colonies and are social, like people, humans were able to domesticate them. Today, beekeepers know how to use a special substance produced by the bees called royal jelly to create new queen bees and thus new colonies. Domesticated European honeybee colonies are transported around the country to pollinate big commercial crops of mostly European plants.

This European honeybee swarm is a new colony searching for a good location (like a hollow tree) to set up a new hive. Individual scout bees take off and shop for ideal real estate and then report back to the colony. They communicate details about potential hive sites to the other bees by performing a complex series of movements known as a waggle dance. Video by Sandy Masuo

European honeybees are unusual because they live in very large, complex colonies. The vast majority of bee species are solitary or live in small groups. (Honeybees shown on Western sycamore.) Photo by Sandy Masuo

But did you know that more than 4,000 bee species are native to North America? About 1,600 native bee species have been recorded in California. Most are solitary, some live in small colonies. Many have no stingers and look nothing like bees to most people. All are susceptible to pesticides and could use your help: plant some native flowering plants if you can, leave some bare patches of earth in your garden because many nest in the ground, and avoid insecticides. Here are a few of our native bees.

There are many different sweat bee species. Some are striped and most are brightly colored like this beautiful green metallic sweat bee. (Metallic sweat bee shown on black-eyed Susan.) Photo by Sandy Masuo


Valley carpenter bees are enormous, but very docile. Females are all black; males are a stunning golden brown. Males have no stingers and produce a rose-scented substance from a gland on their chests—it is used to attract females during mating season. (Female carpenter bee on cochal cactus; male on passion flower.) Photos by Sandy Masuo and Andrew Lyell


Believe it or not, this tiny bee (about 8 mm long) is a relative of the jumbo Valley carpenter bee. There are more than 200 small carpenter bee species—about 20 are native to North America. Photo by Sandy Masuo


Mason bees are named for their habit of using mud or other "masonry" products in constructing their nests. (Mason bee shown on California wild rose.) Photo by Sandy Masuo


Some plants (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant) can be fertilized only by bumblebees, who use a technique called buzz pollination to get the flowers to release their pollen. (Yellow-faced bumblebee shown on yellow lupine.) Photo by Sandy Masuo


Some solitary bees spend the nights sleeping while nestled in flowers. Photo by Sandy Masuo

Other important insect pollinators include wasps, weevils, beetles, and moths. Pollination is generally a mutually beneficial transaction between plants and animals. The pollinator receives (in most cases) nectar or pollen for food and in exchange, the plants' seed is fertilized so that they can reproduce. Birds are generally not important pollinators. Plants and birds have a different agreement. Plants produce fruits and berries that are a food source for birds, and in exchange, the birds distribute the plants' seeds far and wide in their droppings. Birds and primates are both important seed dispersers—they are also the only animal groups that can see the color red. Many, many plants produce berries and fruits that turn red when they are ready to eat (and the seeds inside are ready to germinate), thus advertising to hungry birds and primates.

Because plants want to distribute their seeds as far as possible, it is helpful to enlist the aid of birds, who eat their berries and fruits then drop the seeds when they leave their droppings in distant places. (American robin shown feeding on cotoneaster berries.) Photo by Tad Motoyama


Native wasps, like this paper wasp, are also important pollinators. The yellow-jackets that can be such a nuisance at outdoor gatherings, like honeybees, were imported to North America from Europe. (Paper wasp shown feeding on red buckwheat.) Photo by Andrew Lyell

Have you ever noticed the luminous white flower stalks of Yucca whipplei—Our Lord's candle—blooming in the hillsides? The beautiful, fragrant white flowers of this native plant are pollinated only by the yucca moth. The female moth lays her eggs on the flower stalk and pollinates the small individual flowers in the process. The larvae eat some of the resulting seed pods when they hatch, but the plant makes so many that there are enough to feed the hungry caterpillars and still reproduce. The adult moth's only "payment" is the food provided for the next generation because these moths live only long enough to mate and lay eggs. They have no mouth parts for eating, only tentacle-like structures to carry pollen from flower to flower. Learn more on the USDA Forest Service website.

Yucca moths' lifespans are so short that they have no need to feed; their mouthparts are only used to pollinate the yucca flowers. Photo by Alan Cressler


Like many flowers pollinated by moths, Yucca whipplei blooms are white (to reflect moonlight) and fragrant to attract the nocturnal pollinators. Photo by Sandy Masuo

What about butterflies? Butterflies are generally not important pollinators. If you compare most moths with butterflies, you'll see that butterflies have longer legs and their bodies are less fuzzy. So, they don't really pick up pollen as effectively as their furry, stocky, nocturnal cousins.

Most butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are host-specific, meaning they will feed only on plants of a particular family. Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweeds, gulf fritillaries feed only on plants in the passionflower family, etc. (Monarch caterpillar shown feeding on native California narrow-leaf milkweed.) Photo by Robert McMillan

What do mangoes, bananas, the mighty saguaro cactus, and tequila have in common? They would not exist without bats! Many bats, like our local Mexican free-tailed bats, are important insect-eaters and help control mosquitoes and other pests. But many species of bats are nectar-feeders and have very special, exclusive relationships with specific plants.

Mexican long-tongued bats are important pollinators of agave—notably the blue agave that is used to make tequila. Photo courtesy of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service

Other mammal pollinators include rodents and lemurs. The ruffed lemur is the only pollinator of the spectacular Madagascar travelers' palm, which is not a palm at all but a very showy relative of the bird-of-paradise plant.

The traveler's palm can be pollinated only by lemurs—most often the ruffed lemur. Photo courtesy of Yercaud-elango


Lemurs and travelers palms are endemic to Madagascar. Some lizards are also important pollinators. Madagascar giant day geckos are an example of a reptile pollinator. Photo by Tad Motoyama

Join us for Spring Fling

Weekends March 23 through April 28 plus Friday, April 19

Celebrate all things spring— birds, bees, butterflies, regrowth, and greener living through a sustainable lifestyle. Learn what you can do to help the environment and wildlife conservation while enjoying special entertainment, workshops, crafts, and more. We'll be spotlighting pollinators and the important role they play in ecosystems everywhere.

Learn More >