By Eric Duran
Pollinators are important. All of the showy wildflowers that we enjoy around this time of year depend on animals to cross-fertilize them, as well as many of our food crops.
A plant attracts animals with brightly colored flowers and strong smells. The flower produces sweet nectar for the animal to feed on. The animal inadvertently carries a little sticky pollen over to the next plant, where it hopefully falls into the right spot and allows the plant produce seeds. That’s animal-assisted plant reproduction. That’s pollination.
There are a number of animals that work as pollinators: bats, birds, and a wide variety of insects. This month, we’re going to take a look at some of the gorgeous little insect pollinators that you may encounter in the next few months.
Bees are well known pollinators, but you may not know that there are many more kinds of bees beyond honeybees and bumblebees. In fact, there are more than 4,000 species of bee native to the U.S. and Canada.
One of the more beautiful groups of bees is the Metallic Green Sweat Bees. Bees in this group do drink human sweat occasionally (as the name suggests), but they usually prefer mineral rich puddle water and sweet flower nectar. Unlike honeybees, Metallic Green Sweat Bees nest together in groups underground, but each female excavates her own nest cavity and lays her eggs there.
Most beetles aren’t pollinators, but there are many species around the world that feed on nectar and pollen from flowers. One such group is the Flower Scarabs, which come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. They can be ungainly, and it can be rather comical to see them bumbling around in a large open flower, as they feed. Some species can damage the flowers by feeding on the pollen and internal flower parts, but over all, they work as effective pollinators, as well. The plump white grubs of flower scarabs often overwinter underground, in compost, or in animal dung.
Flies really don’t get enough credit as pollinators. Many species of fly pollinate flowers, but the Flowerflies are one of the most commonly encountered groups of pollinating “true flies.” Flower flies can be very inconspicuous, with rather drab colors, but many of them have bright colors that mimic bees and wasps. While the adults feed on nectar, the larvae feed on other insects or decaying plant material, depending on the species. Therefore, hoverfly larvae can be very beneficial in the garden, feeding on thrips, aphids, and scales, which can harm plants.
If you get the chance to head out into your own garden, you will be richly rewarded by close observation. You may find some unexpected pollinator friends close to home. Regardless of your own home flower situation, you should definitely head out to The Nature Discovery Center sometime soon, and check out the ever-changing array of what is in bloom. The wildflower gardens and the Pocket Prairie will provide you with a gorgeous and interesting study in native pollinators!
Duran is head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire, 713-667-6550.