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From honeybees to honey possums: 20 facts about pollination

  • Only some ants are pollinators

    Ants are among the most diverse, abundant, and ecologically important insects on Earth. Some ant species are also pollinators, and they eat nectar from flowers. However, ants crawl into the flowers they feed on and may or may not end up with pollen on their bodies, so many ants are not effective at moving pollen from one flower to another, which is necessary for pollination.

    Several unusual relationships have evolved between ants, their preferred plants, and the plants' pollinators. For example, research in the journal Nature shows that ants guard the flowers of the acacia tree only before and after their winged pollinators, like bees, arrive, making it easier for the pollinators to access the flowers.

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  • Bats are essential pollinators

    Bats across the world are vital pollinators of many flowering plants. Especially in the desert and tropical regions, bats that feed on flower nectar are essential in pollination and reproduction. Over 300 kinds of fruits depend on bats for pollination, including mangos, bananas, and guavas. Flowers that attract bats are typically large and open at night. The lesser long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-tongued bat both migrate over a thousand miles and are listed as endangered species.

  • Bears depend on pollinators

    Most bear species are omnivores, meaning they feed on a variety of berries, fruits, plants, fish, other animals, and honey. Many of these plants require pollinators. These foods include berries, fruits, and nuts. Interestingly, the sun bears of Asia have evolved specialized long tongues that allow them to access tree cavities where they find honey and insect pollinators.

     

  • Honey possums: among the few flightless mammal pollinators

    Endemic to Australia, honey possums are tiny mammals with extremely long tongues that have evolved to eat only the nectar and pollen of flowering plants, including banksias, eucalypts, and heath. Their aboriginal name is Noolbenger. They have also evolved a prehensile tail that curls around their plants and flowers as they hold on to eat.

     

  • Birds are vital pollinators worldwide

    At least 2,000 bird species worldwide are pollinators. These birds—in a wildly colorful and diverse assortment of partnerships—feed on the nectar, insects, and spiders associated with their preferred flowers. In the U.S., hummingbirds are especially important to wildflowers, while honeycreepers and honeyeaters are vital to wildflowers in Hawaii and Australia, respectively.

    In many cases, the flowers associated with a particular bird pollinator have evolved special features that are associated only with that one special bird species. The scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper, for example, has flowers shaped much like the bird's long, curved bill.

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  • Butterflies and moths: More pollinators at risk

    Besides monarch butterflies, many other species of butterflies and moths are at risk from pollution, human development, climate change, agriculture, and sweeping changes in land use. Butterflies and moths are like jeweled pollinators, and many seemed to have evolved to look like the flowers they pollinate. However, other species are cryptic and drab, depending on their environment and predators. Research suggests that monarchs are so vivid because the milkweed they feed on makes them taste bad to predators.

     

  • Beetles are ancient pollinators

    Many beetle species are pollinators. As one of the oldest groups of insects on Earth, they are among the world's first insect pollinators. Like flowers that evolved with their particular bats, birds, butterflies, and moths, flowers pollinated by beetles have special features. These flowers typically are bowl-shaped, have fruity nectar, and bloom during the day. Two of the most ancient flowering plants pollinated by beetles are magnolias and spice bushes.

  • Researchers track pollinators' health, worldwide

    Scientists have met every year for the last four years to share research on the health and biology of the world's pollinators. The 2019 International Pollinator Conference included 250 scientists from around the world who brought updates on ecology, genes, and managing bees and other pollinators, land use and management, and helping pollinator populations globally.

     

  • Pollination is an 'ecosystem service' under threat

    The pollinators on Earth are much greater than the sum of their parts. It is now commonly understood in science that Earth's pollinators perform what people now call "ecosystem services"—functions and tasks in nature so essential to life on Earth that humans and many other species would not be able to survive without them.

     

  • People create pollinator hotspots

    Pollinators are also now widely understood to be in peril, and many governments, organizations, and institutions are working to recover, regenerate, and restore the Earth's pollinator population. Many pollinator "hotspots," places people are creating or restoring in cities, gardens, and natural zones around the world, are becoming increasingly important to the conservation process. In a 2019 article in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists write, "Urban areas are often perceived to have lower biodiversity than the wider countryside, but a few small-scale studies suggest that some urban land uses can support substantial pollinator populations."

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