What are Pollinators?

Picture of a bee
Photo credit: David Ostermann

Pollinators can be a variety of animals that visit flowers. Some well-known examples are insects, such as bees, flies, and butterflies, or birds such as hummingbirds. Pollinators are essential for keeping ecosystems healthy, producing our food, and becoming food for other living things.

Role in Pollen Movement

Pollinators act like pollen couriers, delivering pollen from one flower to another. While the pollinator visits the flower in search of food, pollen grains from the flower’s stamens (male flower parts) stick to the pollinator’s hairs, feathers or other body parts. If the pollinator visits another flower of the same species, and pollen is deposited onto the flower’s stigma (female flower part), fruit and seeds can be produced through fertilization.

Pollinators From Home and Abroad

We have a variety of pollinators that call Manitoba home. The most commonly known insect pollinators are bees, with wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles also making important contributions. Hummingbirds are well known avian pollinators, and other animals such as small mammals can also pollinate flowers. While bats in other countries may be effective pollinators, our local species like to eat insects instead of nectar.

Pollinators might be considered native, wild, managed, or a combination of these categories. Native pollinators exist in our region naturally, and have evolved alongside the flowering plants found in our local habitats. Wild pollinators may be native, but can also include introduced, non-native species that now exist in natural areas. Managed pollinators are those that have been introduced from abroad or adapted from native species for use by humans.

Our natural and urban areas are home to a large number of different native and wild pollinators. For bees alone, we have about 345 species in Manitoba, with about 460 in the prairie region and almost 900 species in Canada. Native species of pollinators are well adapted to visiting and pollinating the plants in our local habitats and are essential for ecosystem health. They come in many shapes and sizes and have developed special behaviours that make them excellent at pollinating a wide variety of flowering plants.  In some cases, native pollinators are so well adapted to a particular native plant that they are considered “specialists”.  Specialists can be crucial to the survival of the plant, particularly when no other insect can pollinate them as effectively. Native pollinators are extremely important to both natural ecosystems and agricultural production in Manitoba. Our conservation efforts can help keep these pollinators from joining the growing number of native bees, and other species, that are already designated as Species at Risk in Canada. 

Introduced and managed pollinators are typically brought to our region through human activity, usually for honey production or to supplement crop pollination. The European honeybee and alfalfa leafcutting bee are well-known examples. The European honeybee was brought to Canada by European settlers and is primarily managed in agricultural landscapes for honey production and crop or orchard pollination. They are also kept by individuals to produce local honey as a fascinating hobby. Managed leafcutting bees were initially imported from Europe for the pollination of alfalfa.  Their management has since been adapted to other crops such as hybrid canola and blueberry. Species of native bees that are managed for pollination include the alkali bee, the blue orchard bee, and several species of commercial bumble bees. Managed pollinators are not classified as Species at Risk, as they continue to be bred and distributed throughout the world.

Whether native or introduced, all pollinators have similar basic needs. Creating and preserving habitat is the key to ensuring that there is enough pollen, nectar, shelter, and space for all of our pollinators to remain healthy.