Native Pollinators

Justin Ballew,
Horticulture and Agronomy Agent
Agronomic Crops Program Team, Horticulture Program Team,
Dillon County Cooperative Extension Office, Marion County Cooperative Extension Office

HTG 0617

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At the mention of the word “pollinator”, most people immediately picture the honey bee (Apis mellifera). Indeed, this is an important species that we have come to rely heavily on in the agricultural industry; however, the honey bee is not a native insect to the US. It was brought by European settlers in the early 1600’s and spent the next 200 years spreading across the continent. Prior to this (and still today), hundreds of native insects were busy visiting the 40% of flowering plants that require insect pollination for reproduction.

Native Bee Families

Apidae (Honey Bees, Bumble Bees, Carpenter Bees, Squash Bees, Blueberry Bees) – Apidae is the largest family of bees and includes the Apis melifera as well as a number of other honey bee species, none of which are native to the US. Bumble bees are another largely familiar group of bees, made up of around 50 native species. They are big, furry, and usually black and yellow. Bumble bees are good pollinators of certain crops, such as tomatoes, and are commonly kept by beekeepers for just that purpose.

Bumble bees (Apidae) foraging on a sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
Bumble bees (Apidae) foraging for pollen on a sunflower (Helianthus spp.).
Justin Ballew, ©2017, ClemsonUniversity

Carpenter bees are similar in appearance to bumble bees and can be tricky to distinguish. The easiest way to tell the difference is by looking at the abdomen. Bumble bees are hairy all over their abdomen; however, carpenters bees are almost hairless and appear glossy on their upper abdomen. While carpenter bees can be pollinators, they can also rob certain flower species of their nectar without transferring any pollen. The bee does this by cutting a slit with its mouthparts near the base of the flower and drinking the nectar without ever entering the flower. These are also the culprits that make their nesting sites by boring into wood, sometimes causing significant damage.

Squash bees only visit flowers of members of the cucurbit family (squash, zucchini, cucumber, watermelon, pumpkins, etc.). They are much more efficient pollinators of cucurbits than honey bees, though they are very similar looking bees. They often nest underground beneath the plants they will pollinate.

Southeastern blueberry bees are only active for a few weeks of the year, and appear when members of the Vaccinium genus (blueberries, deerberries, huckleberries, etc.) are in bloom. Blueberry bees are much faster and more efficient at pollinating blueberries than honey bees. They vibrate their bodies when they land on the flowers and cause pollen to fall from the anthers. The pollen sticks to the bee’s body and is then transferred to other flowers.

Andrenidae (Miner Bees) – These are solitary, ground nesting bees that are mostly dark colored, though some species are metallic blue, yellow, and/or red. Miner bees are excellent pollinators for azaleas (Rhododendron spp.). They shake the flowers in such a way that clumps of pollen are released from the anthers, which they then transfer to other flowers. Honey bees are not able to shake the flowers in this manner. Some species of miner bees are also good apple (Malus spp.) pollinators.

Colletidae (Plasterer Bees and Yellow-Faced Bees) – This is a unique family of solitary bees that does not carry pollen on the outside of its body. Instead, they carry pollen inside their bodies in their crop. Some species nest in the ground while others nest in stems and cavities of plants. There are approximately 150 species in this family in North America.

Halictidae (Sweat Bees) – These are small, vibrantly colored bees that are frequently seen visiting wildflowers. The beautiful colors make these bees easy to notice. Sweat bees are mostly solitary bees, though many may live in close proximity to one another. Some species are attracted to human sweat and may be pesky.

Megachilidae (Mason Bees, Leaf-Cutter Bees) – This is a large family of bees with over 600 species in North America. Bees in this family differ from other bees in how they carry pollen. Instead of carrying it on their back legs, pollen is carried on the underside of the abdomen. They use pieces of leaves and/or mud to construct their nests, usually in wood cavities or hollow twigs. Neatly cut circular holes made by these leaf-cutter bees in the leaves of plants are fairly common.

This is a leaf cutter bee nest that fell out of a tree cavity.
This is a leaf cutter bee nest that fell out of a tree cavity.
Justin Ballew, ©2017, ClemsonUniversity

Miner bees (Megachilidae) are excellent pollinators.
Miner bees (Megachilidae) are excellent pollinators.
Justin Ballew, ©2017, Clemson University

Other Native Pollinators

Wasps – There are a number of species of wasps that frequently serve as pollinators. The families Scoliidae, Sphecidae (mud daubers and thread-waisted wasps), and Vespidae (paper wasps, yellow jackets, hornets) have many such species. Wasps differ in appearance from bees by the absence of hair on their bodies, which generally makes them less efficient pollinators. They are primarily predators of other insects; however, they do occasionally feed on nectar. In addition, there are a number of species of parasitic wasps that feed exclusively on nectar and assist in pollination.

Flies – Several families of flies can be observed visiting flowers including Syrphidae, Tachinidae, Bombyliidae, etc. Even male mosquitos (Culicidae), which lack the mouthparts necessary for biting humans, feed on nectar and assist in pollination. There are also some plant families that have flowers specifically adapted for fly pollination. These flowers tend to be darker in color and have unpleasant scents, like rotting flesh. The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which chocolate is made, is perhaps the most notable example of a fly pollinated plant. Though not native to the US, midges in the families Ceratopogonidae and Cecidomyiidae are essential for pollinating the flowers and producing cocao beans.

Beetles – Beetles are thought to be among the first insects to visit and pollinate flowers. Flowers pollinated by beetles are usually large like those of magnolias (Magnolia spp.) and water lilies (Nymphaeaceae) or in clusters like goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Spirea. Some of the beetle families that can be observed visiting flowers include Chrysomelidae (leaf beetles), Curculionidae (weevils), Nitidulidae (sap beetles), and Mordellidae (tumbling flower beetles).

A leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) visiting a sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
A leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) visiting a sunflower.
Justin Ballew, ©2017, Clemson University

Butterflies – Many gardeners plant flowers specifically to attract butterflies. Though they are often beautifully colored and offer us a lot of aesthetic value, butterflies are not as efficient at pollinating as bees are. They do not vibrate the way bees do, nor do they fly as fast or visit as many flowers. Some of the most common families we see visiting flowers include Papilionidae (swallowtails), Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies including the monarch), Hesperiidae (skippers), and Pieridae (whites and sulphurs).

An Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilionidae) gathering nectar from a buttonbush flower (Cephalanthus occidentalis).
An Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilionidae) gathering nectar from a buttonbush flower (Cephalanthus occidentalis).
Justin Ballew, ©2017, ClemsonUniversity

Moths – Moths are very similar to butterflies, though they feed mostly at night while butterflies feed during the day. As a result, they often go unnoticed. The family Sphingidae (spinx moths); however, has a number of species that fly during the day. Known as clear-winged sphinx moths or hummingbird moths, they are very hairy and often black and yellow like bees. They are easily confused for bees because they do not typically sit still for us to get a steady look at them.

Non-Insect Pollinators – There are a number of other critters out there that play a role in pollination. Hummingbirds, such as the ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), are frequently observed in the Eastern US. They love brightly colored flowers and eat their weight in nectar every day. Bats can also be important pollinators in some parts of the world, though not so much in the US. They fly and visit flowers at night. There are two species of nectar feeding bats in the US (Choeronycteris mexicana and Leptonycteris curasoae), though they are only found in western states like Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Slugs and snails are another unusual example of non-insect pollinators in the US. They certainly don’t contribute as much as insects, though every little bit helps.

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