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Did you know that 98% of our flowering plant species need animal assistance for pollination?

There are currently around 240,000 such species identified and all, but a smattering, depend on insects for survival. Insects purposely or inadvertently move pollen grains from the anthers to the receptive part of the carpel or pistil of a blossom as part of their activities of foraging for nectar or for other insects. Included in this laundry list of insects are bees (at least 20,000 species), wasps, ants, beetles, flies, moths and butterflies. Most work with “flower constancy” or the habit of transferring pollen to “conspecific” plants. This prevents the likelihood of clogging stigmas of unrelated plants with unusable pollens.

Surprisingly, the biggest group of pollinators is Coleoptera or our beetles. But this is only because Coleoptera is also our most numerous Order of insects. They take care of 88% of the pollination of the world’s species of flowering plants. Although they can see color, they rely more on scent as an attractant. Fruit scents are a favorite. They are particularly attracted to large bowled blossoms and will even chew their way through to its sex organs, if necessary. Since they often defecate in the process, they are tagged as “mess and soil” pollinators.

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Tumbling Flower Beetle

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Green Fig Beetle

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Bumble Bee

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Bee Fly

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Hover Fly

One of the more comical in this huge order is the Metallic Green Fig Beetle (Continus texana). Over an inch long, it lumbers along through the air on short flights. No long destinations here. One wonders how it maintains altitude at all. Named for its host food, it is also frequently seen pollinating such plants as Buddleya or Butterfly Bush. Another favorite of this Order is the Lady Bird Beetle or the Coccinellidae sub order. We have around 450 species in North America alone and they come in colors from yellow to deep red, often with a pattern of dots denoting the species, as well as more drab colors or even solid black. Aside from its well known duties as foragers of soft bellied sucking insects, it is an important pollinator in the garden.

Two others worth mentioning are the Carpet Beetle (Anthrenus verbasci) and the Tumbling Flower Beetle or Pintail Beetle (5000 species). The adult phase of the carpet beetle moves outside to enjoy the nectar of your garden plants and inadvertently pollinates as it moves about. It especially enjoys crape myrtle, spirea and buckwheat. Be sure to check cut flowers before bringing them inside. The Tumbling Flower Beetle is another comical character due to its habit of tumbling, in an out-of-control manner, when you try to capture it. This is true even for a photo! They simply disappear.

One must mention bees in this discussion. Of course, the honey bee is what always comes to mind with the mention of “bee”, but did you know that there are over 20,000 named species of bees and we are still counting! To name just a few you may have in your yard and don’t even know it are Sweat bees, Digger bees, Carpenter bees, Mason bees, Leaf Cutter bees, Andrena bees~shall I go on? They are all pollinators. A particular favorite of mine is the Bumble Bee. Bumble bees (49 species) are called such due to the buzzing noise they make while working. What is actually happening is a process called “sonication” or the grabbing on to the anthers of the host plant and “buzzing” their flight muscles to get the pollen to release. They especially like berry blossoms as well as willow, lupine and tomatoes. Like the honey bee and no other, bumble bees are social and live in colonies with a queen in charge.

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Seven Spot Lady Beetle

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White Lined Sphinx

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Skipper

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Monarch Butterfly

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Morning Cloak

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Thread Wasted Wasp

Wasps are closely related to bees but without hairs. They are extremely important in the garden as pest controllers. Do not ban these creatures. Aside from the fact that the adults need nectar for survival and that means pollination for the plant, they perform the duty of eradicating all manner of pests. In fact, almost every pest in nature has a wasp that preys on or paratisizes it. The wasp will immobilize the host adult or larva with a sting and then lay its eggs. As the eggs mature they feed on the contents of the host and eventually emerge as wasp larvae to begin the process again. Wasps we see in our gardens include Sand wasps, Paper wasps and Potter wasps. These are black and yellow in different patterns with the Potter wasp carrying the most black. Digger wasps are iridescent black with long wings. Mud Dabbers and Thread Waisted wasps both have a very thin connection between the abdomen and thorax. Mud Dabbers are a main enemy of the Black and Brown Widows.

Flies are distinguished from wasps and bees by the possession of just one set of wings. They are important pollinators of flowers with less of a sweet scent. In fact, for adult males, nectar is absolutely essential to the diet. The Tachinid fly paratisizes true bugs such as the stink bug, squash bug and leaf footed bug. This fly is often confused with the house fly. The Hover Fly or Syrphid fly is a delightful and beautiful little creature that likes to investigate every thing about you and is one of the few flies that can not only hover but fly backwards. They feast on aphid honeydew as well as nectar and if the counts are kept high enough in your garden, their larval form can control 70-100% of your aphids. Another beauty is the Bee Fly. This is a larger black fly with beautiful window pane type wings in a variety of patterns.

The popular Order of Lepidoptera brings up the rear but is certainly not of lesser importance. Butterflies and moths are why a lot of us have gardens. Moths contain a vastly larger number of species than butterflies and generally work at night. Both have an interesting structure (proboscis) that allows them to suck up liquid nectar as if through a straw. It coils and retracts when not in use somewhat akin to a watch spring. Although it is popular lore that they prefer flat surfaced blossom clusters, I have often seen them nectaring funnel shaped flowers. Common species we see in our gardens here are Fiery Skipper, Monarch, Mourning Cloak, several varieties of Swallowtail, Cabbage White, Cloudless Sulphur, Marine Blue and Hairstreak. White Lined Sphinx Moth (Hummingbird Moth) will travel through here in the spring. Watch out or you will bump into one.

So now what does the term “pollination” bring to mind? It is quite a bit more complex than a picture of a European Honey Bee buzzing around, no?

MeredithFrench2
Meredith French has been a professional photographer for 30 years. She was accepted into Master Gardeners in 2005 and does public speaking for them. She also writes on a variety of garden topics and is a regular contributor to California Garden. She often features the insects and other wildlife of her own certified habitat garden. Many of these images are for sale at meredithfrenchphoto.com.
 

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