10 Neat Things About Pollinators
by Dorothy Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

July 18, 2017

1. The deceiving pollinator list.

Ask Google for a list of pollinators and she (he?) will deceivingly give you a catalogue of at least 10: bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, bats, birds, ants and spiders. Look closer and you will see that there are no bat pollinator species in Canada, that ants and spiders are not really pollinators, and that wasps, beetles and flies are very inefficient. The real workers in the category: bees, butterflies, moths and birds - although you will hear more about flies.

2. Will you walk into my parlour.

Spiders and ants are often given undue credit as pollinators, probably because they are so often seen visiting flowers, but the motives of some are much more sinister. Flowers are used as hunting platforms for crab spiders and weaver ants to lure unsuspecting bees to their deaths. That does not do much to help the flower.

3. Pollen killer.

Rather than acting as beneficial pollinators, ants carry an antibiotic substance on their bodies that can actually kill pollen grains on contact. The trade-off is that the ants also carry sugar-metabolizing yeasts that, transmitted to the flower, can change the composition of the sugar in the flower's nectar. This may be linked to the type of pollinator they are able to attract. For example, hummingbirds tend to be attracted to plants high in fructose as opposed to flowers with nectars that are high in glucose or fructose.

4. The ant and the butterfly.

The Silvery Blue butterfly is common throughout Canada. It is a pretty pollinator that lays its eggs on alfalfa, white sweet clover, vetches, lupines and other wildflowers. The larvae then make a meal of the flowers and leaves of these sweet plants. This helps them exude a honeydew much appreciated by ants that nurture the larvae and harvest the sweetness just as they do with aphids.

5. Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.

Bees are the champion pollinators - 70 per cent of all pollinators in North America are bees - but they have one big flaw: they cannot see red. Butterflies can, though. So can hummingbirds.

6. Bee is for best.

The reason bees are best at pollinating is that they are hairy. Bee fuzz carries an electrostatic charge that attracts pollen grains. Honey bees, bumblebees, stingless bees and orchid bees carry baskets, called corbicula, for collecting pollen. These pollen carriers are located on their hind legs. Other bees collect pollen using thick, brush like hairs (setae) that hold the pollen grains in. This collection system is called scopa, and storage can occur on the hind legs or the abdomen.

7. Plants beg for help.

Flowers have several strategies for attracting the right kind of pollinators for their particular needs. They exhibit visual clues, emit scent, offer food, mimic insect pheromones and even use a system of entrapment - the pollinator can get into the blossom but not out until they are appropriately covered with pollen.

8. Hanger on or hardy worker?

The hover or flower fly, Syrphidae, is another insect that gets pollinator credit but has few pollen collection parts, other than some sparse hairs on its body. In this uneven relationship between fly and flower, an individual fly gets warmth, food (nectar and pollen), while the plant gets the odd pollen grain. Still, there are a lot of flies and even inefficiency can be overcome by numbers. Defenders of the genus Diptera (flies) swear that they do more than some honey bees and, in one study, more pollen grains were found on a flower fly than on a European honey bee.

9. Is it a fly or a bee?

Some bees, such as the genus Perdita, are very small and some flies are very bee-like. To tell the difference, look at their eyes - flies have the big ones. But if you can't get that up close and personal, you can still see that hover flies move in a jerky manner. In addition, bees and wasps have four wings while flies have only two.

10. Planting for pollinators.

Hummingbirds like to feed on Agastache, aquilegia, milkweed, coral bells and honeysuckle. Butterflies favour coreopsis, milkweed, echinacea, liatris and salvia. Bees get busy on yarrow, gaillardia, monarda, spirea, Veronica, catmint, St. John's wort, and all kinds of daisies. Moths love flowers that bloom at night.

Dorothy Dobbie Copyright© Pegasus Publications Inc.

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