Paula Cochran is an award-winning writer and photographer. In her spare time she shoots bugs – with a camera, of course. Paula can be reached at

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Meet the “Other” Pollinators
by Paula Cochran       #Beneficials   #Insects   #Unusual

The Pennsylvania leatherwing, a soldier beetle, consumes nectar and pollinates as it travels. As a bonus, it eats insect eggs, grasshopper eggs, caterpillars, aphids, and mealybugs.

In the move toward more ecologically sound growing practices, there is no insect that has gotten more attention than the honey bee. Though the honey bee is surely worthy of all our efforts, let us not forget to focus our attention on the many other pollinators that provide an invaluable service and are also on the decline.

Three quarters of the world’s crops, including fruit, grains and nuts depend on pollination. The loss of pollinators is not only an issue concerning food sources for humans; it impacts all living things that depend on a sound ecological food source. For example, grazing animals depend on the insect population to pollinate legumes, such as alfalfa and clover. In addition, pollinators like the often dreaded mosquito not only pollinate, they also serve as a food source for fish, spiders, salamanders, lizards and frogs.

In addition to bees, flies, mosquitos, moths, wasps, beetles and butterflies, there are beneficial garden insects that not only pollinate but keep the good versus bad bug population in check.

Syrphid flies, or hover flies, can be significant pollinators. This one is perched on a wild daisy.

While we want our zucchini plants to flourish, in spraying or dusting an insecticide to ensure many loaves of zucchini bread, we’ve opened the door to killing not only the culprit invading our zucchini, but the beneficial bugs and insects that would have taken care of the problem naturally. Pesticides cannot discriminate bad bugs from good bugs.

In killing off today’s “foes” we inadvertently kill off tomorrow’s “friends;” friends who are essential, as without them none of the earth’s ecosystems would survive. Left to their own devices, pollinators will produce larger, more flavorful fruits and higher crop yields and weed out the good from the bad insects naturally.

So who are these other pollinators, and how can they benefit your garden?

When beetles come to mind, most people think of the lady beetle. Yet there are more than 350,000 species of beetles, and they are responsible for pollinating 88 percent of a quarter million flowering plants globally. As pollinators, they prefer fruity and wide-open flowers like aster, sunflower, rose and butterfly weed. In addition, they feed on caterpillars, cutworms, root maggots, spiders, snails, slugs, mites and other beetles.

A clouded sulfur snacking on a marigold. Butterflies as pollinators prefer flowers that provide broad surfaces for landing.

Butterflies and Moths
Butterflies pollinate by day. Their long, curled proboscis (tongue) is like a straw perfect for dipping into flowers for nectar. They prefer flowers with a landing platform (labellum) and brightly colored blooms like zinnia, yarrow and daisies. Once they land, they gather pollen on their long and thin legs.

Moths do most of their pollinating at night. Because light-colored flowers are more visible at night, they prefer light-colored flowers like honeysuckle and primrose.

A feather-legged fly dives face first into a flower. While insects exploit flowers for food, flowers exploit insects to achieve pollination.

Flies are important pollinators. They have small tongues, so they are attracted to simple bowl-shaped flowers like dill, aster and Queen Anne’s lace. In addition, many maggots are predators, and they eat aphids, leafhoppers, scale insects, mealybugs and corn earworms.

Mosquitos are often accidental pollinators of Umbelliferae family (plants with umbrella shaped blooms), including anise, caraway, carrots, celery, coriander, cumin, dill and parsnips. They are also beneficial to plants like goldenrod, orchids and grasses. Despite their reputation as nothing but a nuisance, male mosquitos live entirely off nectar and plant fluids; females also survive on a plant-based diet and only seek blood when they are producing eggs.

A blue-wing scoliid wasp, a bumble bee and a paper wasp share a goldenrod stem. Though bees are the number-one pollinator, wasps contribute to this important activity.

Wasps are not the most efficient pollinators due to their lack of hair, but they have very high-energy and move about frantically, thus, they get the job done. In addition, they bring caterpillars, live insects and larvae back to their nest to feed their young.

Remember the Little Guys
Since the beginning of time, plants and insects have formed a relationship that ensures pollination. But we are now faced with the dilemma that due to human decisions like disruption to native species, introduction of non-native species, modern farming practices and insecticides and herbicides, we now find ourselves in the position of having to help pollinators by making better decisions for the benefit off all living things. Luckily, creating healthy habitats for pollinators is easy to do.

Though it doesn’t look like a “traditional” bee, it is in fact a bee. This metallic sweat bee entangled in a chicory flower will leave the flower glistening with pollen.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2015 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Paula Cochran.


Posted: 05/22/17   RSS | Print


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