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10 Pollinators you never knew were crucial for your 5-A-Day, chocolate, and tequila!

Honeybees get all the press, but what about the other pollinators keeping our supermarket shelves stocked full of fruit and veg - not to mention chocolate and even tequila?

June 28, 2020

Honeybees get all the press, but what about the other pollinators keeping our supermarket shelves stocked full of fruit and veg - not to mention chocolate and even tequila?

In the UK alone, there are somewhere in the region of 1,500 species of pollinators and they come in all shapes and sizes. Among the more obvious ones are bees and butterflies, but there are many other animals helping farmers to produce an abundance of food.

Pollination is a necessary step in the formation of many familiar fruits and vegetables, as well as delicacies such as chocolate. That’s why biodiversity is so crucial. A silent orchard would not only be eerily melancholy, it would be unable to produce the delicious foods we take for granted.

Scientists in the Haerty Group at Earlham Institute are exploring the natural history of many of these pollinator species, as part of a BBSRC funded project. By studying the genetic diversity of some pollinating species, the group hopes to better understand the national picture of how pollinators have been impacted by industrial agriculture and the associated loss of wildflower meadows over the last century. This knowledge can help us form plans to boost their survival in the long run.

Here’s a look at some of those pollinators that you perhaps never knew were so important for your five a day and more!

1. Fig Wasps - Agaonidae

You read that right. If you enjoy a good fig roll, you’ve got a fig wasp to thank for it.

For each of the 900-odd species of fig in the world, there is a unique species of parasitic wasp which pollinates it. This is one of those marvels of co-evolution, by which neither species could live without the other.

It’s a pretty epic tale. Pollen-laden females find a fig plant and lay their eggs in the flowers, pollinating them in the process. Flowers in which larvae hatch turn into special structures, while the others become seeds. Males hatch, wander around the fig to find females, and fertilise them. They then build a sacrificial tunnel for the female to escape, and die inside the fig. The female wasp then clambers out, picking up pollen on her way, to find another fig and repeat the process. Meanwhile, the carcass of the dead male is broken down by an enzyme.

Figs: taste and pure romance (and yes, you are eating bits of wasp).

2. Red Mason Bee - Osmia Rufa

Red mason bees are more effective at pollinating flowers than even the famed honeybee. They’re also frequent visitors to bee hotels, which can be a great way to boost the prospects of pollinators in your garden, providing they are made and placed correctly.

Red mason bees are solitary, meaning that they don’t live in communal hives. They tend to nest alone in hollow plant stems, which is one reason why they love bee hotels so much. They can also live on cliffs or in the crumbling walls of decrepit buildings, and can be spotted between March and June.

After mating, the female bees lay their eggs in a nest lined with mud and pollen. The larva hatches in the autumn, using the pollen to bulk up before hibernation in winter, followed by emergence next spring to help pollinate our apples, pears, plums, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.

Red Mason Bees are frequent visitors to bee hotels

3. The Mexican Long-Tongued Bat - Choeronycteris Mexicana

Anyone for a shot of tequila?

The agave plant from which Mexico’s famous spirit is made is exclusively pollinated by bats. One species in particular, the Mexican long-tongued bat, is so-named for its special elongated tongue, which it employs to reach the delicious nectar deep inside a flower.

Agave plants co-evolved with bats, and as such are pollinated by night. One problem for both the bats and the tequila industry, in the long run, is that demand for more tequila means that agave plants are grown from clones which have their stalks cut before pollination can occur.

This is bad for bats and it’s bad for tequila. Clones are prone to diseases, while the bats require the pollen and nectar as food. Thankfully, the Tequila Interchange Project is underway, which advocates sustainable practices that can keep both bats and tequila thriving for years to come.

Tequila is not the only product we can thank bats for. They are responsible for pollinating a wide range of fruits, too, including mangoes, guava and bananas.

4. Ashy Mining Bee - Andrena Cineraria

Have you ever come across what looks like a tiny volcano in your garden? Chances are, you’ve got a nesting mining bee. From March to June, Ashy mining bees can usually be found all over England and Wales, and it’s the females which create those craters by burrowing underground to make a nest.

Ashy mining bees have a beautiful and - compared to what you might expect from a bee - unusual marking pattern. With whitish tufts on the sides, grey stripes on the back, and white fluff on the face, you’ll know when you see one. They are pollinators of many plants, including buttercups, hawthorn, gorse and fruit trees.

From March to June, Ashy mining bees can usually be found all over England and Wales

5. Hoverflies

Is it a wasp? Is it a bee? Perhaps that creature buzzing around your flower beds is a hoverfly.

These remarkable insects do a quite tremendous job when it comes to mimicking hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), and they perform just as admirably in the pollination department. In fact, as well as being even more effective pollinators than bees in some cases - ranging over much greater distances to spread pollen farther afield - many species of hoverfly also offer pest control. The larvae of Syritta pipiens, for example, happily munch on aphids; a valuable service, as aphids can be an utter nuisance to farmers and food production.

A hoverfly can be even more effective pollinators than bees in some cases

6. Chocolate Midges - Forcipomyia

If it weren’t for the miniscule midges of the genus Forcipomyia, there would be no chocolate. These tiny insects are able to crawl into the anthers of cacao flowers and help them to pollinate - an essential duty, as unlike other plants, cacao cannot self-fertilise.

Midges may not have the best reputation, particularly among those who’ve been bitten by them. But the fate of chocolate is inextricably tied to Forcipomyia. That’s where sustainable farming practices, such as those being advanced by EI’s GROW Colombia project, might offer some help. Agroforestry has been shown to increase the shade conditions required for the chocolate midge to thrive - and continue to sustain that chocolate we so desire.

7. Honey Possum - Tarsipes Rostratus

Ok, so we don’t eat eucalyptus - but eucalyptus honey is all the rage at the moment.

Also known as the Noolbenger - it’s aboriginal name - the honey possum is the world’s only true nectar-eating marsupial (indeed, one of the only mammals). Considering honey possums don’t eat honey and are only remotely related to possums, Noolbenger seems a far more appropriate name. Just look at them. Definitely Noolbengers.

Thanks to their nectivorous habit, Noolbengers pollinate a range of plants in their native Australia, including eucalyptus, so we can thank them for the refreshing aromas of cough sweets and chewing gum, at the very least.

8. Carrion Beetles - Silphidae

Plants such as paw paw require DNA from a different plant to be able to produce fruit - they cannot self-pollinate. As such, bees aren’t much use. Instead, they require other pollinating insects such as flies and beetles, which are often attracted by a slight whiff of rotting flesh emitting from the flowers.

The clue is in the name. Carrion beetles are attracted to those smells - after all they do eat dead, decomposing things - and therefore some flowers have tuned in to receive a pollination service. A rather gruesome sounding and spectacular plant pollinated by carrion beetles is the Sumatran corpse flower.

Beetles are the most species rich and diverse group of insects on the planet, and between them pollinate a large range of plants, including macadamia nuts. Because they were around all the way back when flowers were only recently evolved (unlike bees, which popped up 100 million or so years later), beetles tend to be very important pollinators of some of our more ancient plants - including those of the magnolia family such as nutmeg.

Bettles tend to be very important pollinators of some of our more ancient plants

9. Hawkmoths

Papaya is an important global fruit crop which is entirely dependent on pollination by hawkmoths - the unsung heroes of the night.

Moths “do the pollinator night shift” - a role that has been underappreciated until now. The pollen of 33 species of plant - including peas, oilseed rape and soybean - was found on UK moths in a recent study.

As with our hoverflies, it’s thought that they allow for more mixing between plant populations than bees can manage because the moths travel over such long ranges. This is a useful service, not only in terms of pollination but in ensuring the health of wildflowers by reducing inbreeding.

Moths “do the pollinator night shift”

10. Hummingbird

Do you like a twist of pineapple in your fruit salad?

Ok, so pollination is not essential for pineapple production - and farmers tend not to grow their crops from seeds. However, pineapples do require pollination to produce seeds, so to get to where we are now, there must have been an extensive amount of work put in by hummingbirds in the past.

Hummingbirds also provide important pollination of flowers in tropical ecosystems, and are therefore a lynchpin of diversity. Bromeliads (pineapple relatives) and heliconias, for example, are known to harbour hundreds of different species within the pools which form in between their flowers and leaves.

Those species go on to sustain the food chains which nourish our forests and, in turn, provide us with bountiful products such as bananas and brazil nuts. So, directly or indirectly, pollination is important.

Hummingbirds provide important pollination of flowers in tropical ecosystems

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager