By Eric Duran
When people think of creatures attracted to flowers — those that pollinate the flowers — they usually think of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.
There is, however, a plethora of other animals that pollinate flowers. Some flowers have very specific pollinators, while others are pollinated by a wide variety of creatures. Regardless, for many flowers, animal pollinators are a necessity for reproduction, creating fruit and seeds. Many of these pollinators help fertilize food crops that we enjoy and rely on. Almost all of the colorful wildflowers that we enjoy rely on pollinators, many of them lesser known.
This month, we’ll take a look at some of the more obscure pollinators.
Some pollination happens at night. Though not found in our area of the country, Long-tongued and Long-nosed bats pollinate a variety of flowers in the desert southwest and in south Texas. These bats and others help pollinate the flowers of mangos, bananas and guavas.
Bats are also crucial to the production of tequila as the primary pollinators of the agaves from which tequila and mescal are made. The tall and iconic saguaro cacti of the American Southwest are also pollinated by these night flying mammals.
Flies are another creature that most people don’t think of when they think of flowers and pollinators, but many species of fly visit flowers to drink nectar and pass pollen from one to the next, especially the flowerflies.
Flowerflies specialize in feeding from flowers, and many of them are bee mimics. Flies don’t have many ways to protect themselves, so this is a good strategy for keeping some predators at bay. This species, Palpada vinetorum, it doesn’t really have a common name, is very common in Texas and along the Gulf Coast. Their larvae are aquatic and feed on organic material suspended in the water.
Most people are scared of wasps for their stings, and that’s understandable. Wasps though are actually quite beneficial in the garden and in native ecosystems. Wasps prey on caterpillars and other plant feeding insects that would otherwise overwhelm food plants, flowers, and trees — and they also are prolific pollinators. Like most of us, they eat plant material AND animals — in their case, insects.
Potter wasps, like this one seen feeding on Prairie Parsley, are common denizens of the wildflower gardens at our Nature Discovery Center. They are named after their practice of creating little mud pot-like structures as nests for their eggs and larvae. After this one finished feeding on nectar, she was seen eating a flowerfly.
Those are just a few of the many animals that pollinate flowers. There is also a retinue of beetles, other flies, true bugs, small birds, and even small lizards that help pollinate flowers. Oranges, avocados, almonds, and a variety of other crops depend on wild pollinators — so these animals are extremely important for us, as well as the plants.
We invite you to come by the park, and try to find some of these pollinators in our wildflower gardens or join us for one of our guided nature hikes. Call 713-667-6550 to find out more.
Duran is staff naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire, NatureDiscoveryCenter.org