Memorial Day may be the unofficial start of summer, but summer in the northern hemisphere really begins on the summer solstice. Whether it falls on June 20, 21 or 22, June is when students are out of school, swimming pools are in high demand and lots of pollinators are busy fertilizing our crops.
Pollination is the sensual relationship of pollen movement from the male parts of flowers to the female parts of flowers in order to produce seeds. This reproductive interaction can be caused by wind, gravity or animals. It is reported that about 75% of all flowering plants rely on animal pollinators, and more than 200,000 species of animals act as pollinators. Furthermore, research studies estimate that about 75% of the food sources in the world are dependent on pollination. In fact, according to the National Wildlife Federation, every one-in-three bites of food you take comes from a pollinated source.
When people hear the word “pollinator,” most people think of insects such as bees and butterflies. However, pollinators come in a large variety of shapes, sizes and species. Birds, including hummingbirds and mockingbirds, aid in pollination, as do mammals like mice and badgers. In fact, even humans play a key role in the pollination of some plant species. This wide and varied array of pollinators inhabit many different ecosystems. They are present in forests, deserts, grasslands, gardens, roadsides and farms. In addition to helping us produce food crops, these beneficial animals are critical to the spread of native plants, which provide food and shelter for other beneficial animals.
Pollinators spread pollen by seeking out the protein-rich substance, searching for nectar or feeding on flowers. Some pollinators brush near plants and become covered in pollen, which they transport to many other blooms. The most successful pollinators utilize flight. This is why insects are some of the most successful creatures in any ecosystem; they spread pollen farther and more quickly than other animals.
It is undeniable that pollinators are singularly crucial to the survival of wildlife and humans. Despite their importance, many humans remain unaware of the necessity of pollinators’ presence at their farms and gardens. As a result, wild habitats are destroyed to make room for urban developments, such as subdivisions and shopping centers. The use of pesticides also hampers the growth and development of beneficial animals. With many pollinators in danger of extinction, people must engage in conservation practices for pollinators, such as planting new habitats to provide food, water and shelter for these incredibly beneficial animals. Additionally, awareness of pollinator species must grow. Unfortunately, most humans possess only an essential awareness of common bees and butterflies like monarchs, honeybees and bumblebees.
While these traditional pollinators are significant players in ecology and environmental quality, there are several species that people would be surprised to learn are pollinators. These include unique types of bats, moths and butterflies. These non-traditional pollinators are uncommon or difficult to find, sometimes escaping the notice of even seasoned wildlife enthusiasts. Also, these animals demonstrate unusual physiological and behavioral traits that affect their roles as pollinators and their importance to human agricultural and wildlife development. Therefore, they are considered unusual pollinators.
Bats serve several purposes related to natural cycles. Carnivorous bats hunt by night, seeking out insects (such as moths, flies and mosquitoes) as their primary diet. Since bats rarely interfere with human lifestyles, they are welcome around homes, gardens and farms. Bats will also hunt small mammals that feed on plant products like fruits and vegetables or roots. However, while these bats are meat-eaters, they share a trait with humans: a sweet tooth. Many people are surprised that bats eat foods other than insects. During their nighttime hunt, bats will visit night-blooming flowers to devour nectar and pollen. Nectar is a treat for these bats, and the pollen is an additional source of protein and energy. Night-blooming flowers on plants (such as various cacti and datura) will provide sufficient resources for these night hunters.
Fruit bats are equally beneficial. They engage in behavior that benefits plants, humans and the bats themselves. Fruit bats in the desert will seek out cactus flowers and dine on their nectar and pollen, which allows the cacti to spread. These cacti are one of many plant types that require pollination to produce fruits from their flowers. Once the flowers transform into delicious fruit, the same group of bats return and feed on the very fruit they helped to create. The seeds from the fruit pass through their bodies and help to spread the cactus. These fruits are also a source of nourishment for humans living nearby. Cactus fruits are available in markets, and humans can thank bats for developing these sweet treats. The development of cactus fruits and other plants makes bats invaluable to humans and other animals who enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Moths are as crucial to humans and wild ecosystems as butterflies and bees. Most people see moths as either drab and unimportant or as pests, but many moths continue to pollinate when butterflies have already disappeared for the evening. Many day-blooming plants, such as lantana, have flowers that remain open during dusk. These attract the impressive sphinx or hawk moths. These moths are sometimes known as hummingbird moths because they flitter around their favorite nectar plants in a manner similar to hummingbirds.
The clearwing moth, unlike most moths and butterflies, has no scales. This results in wings that are almost transparent. These sphinx moths are essential both as pests and pollinators. Their larvae, the tomato hornworm, grow very large feeding on tomatoes and potatoes. They can defoliate entire plants. Once the larvae transform into cocoons and then moths, the unique adults begin pollinating tomatoes and potatoes to help them spread and grow fruit. Essentially, these moths are enhancing their food source.
Yucca moths specifically live on and pollinate yucca plants. These succulents depend entirely on yucca moths to develop and spread. Adult females have chin tentacles that gather and hide pollen. Yucca plants are used as ornamentals, and the moths have been shown to spread to locations where yuccas are grown, even outside of their normal range.
Butterflies are extremely variable. The more common species (such as monarchs, painted ladies and fritillaries) are seen in gardens and farms across Texas. There are many more beneficial butterfly species in Texas; you just have to know what you are looking for.
Skipper butterflies are sometimes confused for moths because they look small and plain. Skippers pollinate crops like pumpkins, tomatoes and other fruits, along with ornamentals such as lantana and milkweed. They are one of the few types of butterflies that are not picky when it comes to diet. They will enjoy nectar from any plant that provides it. They usually lay their eggs in grasses, which the tiny caterpillars devour.
Hairstreak butterflies are very strange. They are tiny and hard to notice when you are not looking for them. They sit on the leaves of their favorite nectar food-plants and rub the tails of their hind wings together. These “tails” are modified wing parts that resemble antennae. This movement of the hairstreak’s wings, combined with dark-grey or black-with-silver and small orange markings on their wings, makes them look like unappealing bugs to their predators.
These unique pollinators are invaluable resources that farmers, ranchers and gardeners depend on for success. However, human sprawl is putting a strain on many of these species that we need and enjoy. Pollinators are vitally important to both our cultivated and wild ecosystems. With a little planning and some added support, we can enjoy the fruits of the labors of these amazing creatures for generations to come.
By CLARENCE BUNCH, Ph.D.
AgNR Program Leader
Prairie View A&M University Cooperative Extension Program
College of Agriculture & Human Sciences