Pollinators Week: Word Association

I say, “Pollinators.” 

Chances are, you respond, “Bees!”

Maybe you also thought of hummingbirds, a charismatic megafauna of pollinator species, frequently depicted on logos and awareness signage.

Bumblebee on a purple sage flower

Bees and birds are but a few of a multitude of animals doing the work of pollination that results in food on our plates, flowers in our vases, functioning ecosystems all around us. Depending where you live, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, and one other group of insects – that I’ll discuss below – could be your local pollinators.

What a Pollinator Does

Readers of a certain age know the euphemism “the birds and the bees,” yet might be less familiar with the role of actual birds, bees, and non-bird, non-bee pollinators. 

Here is a most basic word association regarding pollination:

  • Pollen :: Plant sperm
  • Flower :: Sperm depository; the female part*
  • Pollinators :: Delivery trucks (bringing sperm to ovaries)
  • Fruit :: Swollen ovary
  • Seed :: Future baby plant

*Botany fans, I know it is way more specific than this. Flowers have many parts and different parts depending on their species, maleness, femaleness, or all-in-oneness. For curious readers, search online for “what is a pollen tube?” and/or “what is a perfect flower?” You will never look at flowers the same. Really. Because Nature is amazing. (And if you really want to blow your mind, read about avocado flowers.) 

Some plants and trees make their babies just fine without pollinators, but if the plant has a fruit (not just “fruits” like watermelons, peaches, and grapes, but any kind of seed-holder, like tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins) it needs pollination to happen. 

Many pollinators have long tongues and fuzzy bodies that pollen sticks to, so the delivery of pollen between and amongst flowers happens efficiently. And it’s not that pollinators are trying to do this. It happens, thanks to species evolving together. Flowers make yummy nectar and nutritious pollen that attracts consumers. Nature again for the win-win!

Who Else is Doing this Work??

I say, “Flies!” 

You respond, ________ ? 

Flies as an insect-category get a bad rap. They bite ankles, spend time on your dog’s poop then immediately alight onto your potato salad, their babies are disgusting, some constantly flit around the sink drain, others spread diseases like river blindness. Flies :: Gross!

Wait. Lest we judge allll the flies by the ones that annoy us, let’s learn about the ones that help us by pollinating things we like to put into smoothies. After bees, flies are the next largest group of pollinators! Some flies even look like bees.

To distinguish if a pollinator is a bee or a fly, look at antennae, eyes, wings, and pollen sacs. As a general rule: bees have long antennae; flies have large, compound eyes; flies keep their wings out; bees have pollen sacs on their hind legs. (Imagine if you had a messenger bag strapped to each calf that could hold 1 million potato chips or 1 million pretzel braids. Whoa. And you could fly carrying that extra weight. Double whoa.) 

Hoverflies, blowflies, and yes, even houseflies are in the top ten of pollinators doing the most work around the world. This article from Smithsonian Magazine explains it further: How Much Do Flies Help with Pollination.

Here’s a FUF gallery of fliers I’ve observed this week. Note the differences between bee bodies and fly bodies. (If a photo or two makes you shudder, scroll to the bottom for a closing image of a “Switzerland” shasta daisy getting ready to burst open.)

My place is their place.

I hope this week you’ve been able to notice who’s flying around the place where you live.

White daisy blossom with petals tight to center
Keep growing!


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