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The Real Pollinators

What do you think of when you hear the word pollinator?

The first thing that comes to your mind is probably a honey bee. An icon of agriculture and a poster child for pollinators everywhere, right? Not quite. Honey bees are not as good as most people think. Many people have heard “save the bees” or “the bees are dying” and that honey bees are dying at alarming rates and if they die off then we will have no food. This is not entirely true. Honey bees, just like cows, are livestock and every honey bee that you see outside is either from a feral colony or an artificial bee hive. Livestock always has fluctuating populations and honey populations are actually higher than they have ever been.

The honey bee is not a native species to the United States and was brought over by colonists in order to help pollinate the other non-native crops they brought over. With the introduction of honey bees to North America we created a very unhealthy ecosystem in which the honey bees have been doing more harm than good. Honey bees live in very dense colonies, where most native bees are solitary, and outcompete native pollinators for resources. This has caused a negative trend on the populations of native pollinators. So next time you see someone promoting something to promote honey bee “conservation” or beekeeping it may be doing more harm than good.

Ok. I needed to talk about the elephant (or in this case the honey bee) in the room before I discuss about the pollinators that are supposed to be here. This week is pollinator week and it is a week dedicated to promoting awareness and conservation of native pollinators. Native pollinators come in many shapes and sizes and some are very surprising. The most efficient pollinator that we have in our ecosystems is the iconic bumblebee. Since bumblebees are so fuzzy they are very good at picking up pollen grains and have special organs on their legs to collect the pollen called pollen baskets. Bumblebees live in colonies, usually residing underground, and care for their young in a similar way to honey bees.

In addition to bumblebees there are many different species of native bees that all pollinate. In Nevada alone there are over 1,000 different species of native bees that all play their own roles in pollinating native plants. Some native bees exclusively pollinate one species of plant and thus that plant is reliant on that bee species for reproducing. Native bees are estimated to pollinate about 80% of all flowering plants in North America including important crop plants that we need to survive. Living by themselves also means most solitary bees have no reason to sting and are not as aggressive as a honey bee or a wasp that lives in large colonies.

Now onto the lesser known pollinators. I am not going to cover butterflies in this because they are worth a whole other blog. Flies are also pollinators! Even the really annoying ones that get trapped in your house can also be pollinators, although the main species of flies that pollinates probably wouldn’t find its way into your house. The flies that visit flowers are called hover flies and are usually striped like a bee to blend in with everyone else.

Beetles are also pollinators and enjoy a sweet nectar treat when visiting flowers but don’t intentionally collect pollen like other pollinators. In North America the flower visiting beetles are fairly small but in other parts of the world the beetles that visit flowers are huge and colorful and are very diverse. While we don’t have any pollinating mammals or reptiles in the United States other parts of the world, such as Australia, do. Australia has a ridiculous amount of small mammals and reptiles that love to sip nectar from flowers and pollinate at the same time. I definitely recommend googling a picture of honey possum which is one of the cutest pollinators I have seen.

The importance in being aware of the broader spectrum of the world of pollinators instead of just a small slice of it, also allows us to acknowledge that pollinators provide us with a vital source of life and should be protected for the sake of the future. Happy Pollinators Week!


About the Author:

Irene was born and raised in Reno and graduated from Cal Poly Humboldt in 2020 with a degree in Zoology and a minor in Studio Art. She has spent the last few years working in different places across the country such as upstate New York surveying insects for a farmscape ecology program, working with the Entomology Department at the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans and most recently an Invertebrate Zookeeper for the Toledo Zoo in Ohio. She has a strong passion for lesser loved creatures like invertebrates and reptiles. In her spare time Irene enjoys exploring the local landscape, keeping pet reptiles and invertebrates and making a variety of art. She hopes to teach people to love the unloved and understand their important roles in our ecosystems.


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