Who are the Pollinators?

picture of bee

Bees

  • Four wings
  • Long antennae
  • Hairy and/or metallic bodies
  • Pollen basket
  • Sting
About Bees

Bees come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Of the almost 900 species of bee in Canada, the prairie region has some of the greatest diversity. There are around 345 species found in Manitoba alone. These insects are extremely important for ecosystems and agriculture.

Native bees can be grouped as social or solitary. Bumble bees are social, which means they form a colony with a queen and worker daughters. The colonies do not survive through the winter – they are started by a new queen each spring. Bumble bee colonies may be found in old rodent dens or other hidden cavities, typically in the ground. The majority of our bee species are considered solitary bees. Instead of a colony, a female provisions her young with pollen and nectar, who then feed and develop into adults that leave the nest. Solitary bees make their nests in a variety of locations depending on the species. They may be underground, in holes in wood, hollow stems, cracks in buildings, or they might build homes out of pebbles and plant resin.

Bees raise their young on pollen and nectar, so they have some interesting features that allow them to carry it home. Bees are typically covered in branched hairs that are great for trapping pollen, which is groomed and packed into specific areas on their bodies. Bumble bees have a special segment on their hind legs called a pollen basket (corbicula). When mixed with a bit of nectar, the pollen sticks to the basket as a transportable pellet. Solitary bees have patches of dense, feathery hairs on their legs or bodies called scopae that function in the same way. Leaf cutting bees carry their pollen on a scopa located under their abdomen (the last body segment of a bee). Tiny, yellow-faced bees will store pollen in their crop (a small stomach) to regurgitate when they return to their nest.

All of our native bees are capable of defending themselves, and their nests, by stinging. Unlike honey bees, native bees can sting multiple times without dying. Honey bees have barbed stingers which remain embedded in the skin. As the bee flies off, the internal organs connected to the stinger are pulled out. Native bees have a smooth stinger that does not get embedded, so they are able to fly off unharmed. Stingers are re-purposed egg-laying structures called ovipositors, so only females can sting! Bees will only sting if they feel they are in danger. Their bright colours are intended to warn would-be predators of their defenses, and often that is all that’s needed.

Did you know... Honey bees are not native to North America. This important agricultural pollinator arrived with European settlers, and continues to be used for crop pollination and honey production. Natural areas do not require honey bees to thrive; pollination is provided by native insects.

Pictures of Common Bees in Manitoba
Picture of a green sweat bee on Saskatoon bush blossoms
A green sweat bee (Augochlorella aurata) on Saskatoon bush blossoms (Amelanchier alnifolia). Photo credit: Sarah Semmler.
A tricoloured bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) hanging upside down from a western snowberry blossom (Symphoricarpos occidentalis).
A tricoloured bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) hanging upside down from a western snowberry blossom (Symphoricarpos occidentalis). Photo credit: Sarah Semmler.
A honey bee (Apis mellifera) on a dwarf milkweed blossom (Asclepias ovalifolia).
A honey bee (Apis mellifera) on a dwarf milkweed blossom (Asclepias ovalifolia). Photo credit: Carlynne Millns.

 

 

 

 

 

Picture of a butterfly

Butterflies

  • Four wings with bright scales
  • Wings held upright or open
  • Clubbed and/or hooked antennae
About Butterflies

There are just over 300 species of butterfly in Canada, with approximately 150 species found in Manitoba.

 

Butterflies may be some of our most eye-catching pollinators. Their vibrant wings are covered in tiny scales which create vivid patterns. These patterns serve many purposes. Some provide camouflage so that they are difficult for predators to find, while others are as bright as possible to warn predators that they are toxic. Eye-spots that look much like the eyes of a bird may be used to startle approaching predators when revealed.

 

Caterpillars can be quite specialized and may only feed on particular native host plants. Female butterflies seek out host plants when it is time to lay their eggs so that their caterpillars hatch on the correct food source. Most of the life of a butterfly is spent as a caterpillar, and without their host plants, they cannot complete this important stage of life. Including native plants in our gardens helps these caterpillars survive.

 

Most butterflies will feed on nectar from a variety of flowers. Nectar is sipped using a long, hollow tongue called a proboscis. 

Pictures of Common Butterflies in Manitoba
Monarch butterfly caterpillar feeding on common milkweed
Monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) feeding on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo credit: Sarah Semmler.
A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on New England aster
A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). Photo credit: Living Prairie Museum.

picture of a moth

Moths

  • Four wings, may lack scales
  • Wings folded over body
  • Feathered or thread-like antennae
About Moths

Like butterflies, moths can be extremely beautiful pollinators. It is possible there are 600 to 800 species in Manitoba, but that number is still being determined! 

Not all moths are pollinators, but those that are play important roles. The endangered Western Prairie Fringed Orchid, for example, cannot produce seed without pollination from long-tongued moths that fly at night (nocturnal). The blooms produce scent after sundown which attracts hawk and sphinx moths. Moths that pollinate during the day include the clearwing moths. These moths lose their wing scales early in adult life. The clear wings and hovering flight mean they are often confused with bumble bees or hummingbirds.

Pictures of Common Moths in Manitoba
An underwing moth feeding on nectar from common milkweed
An underwing moth (Catocala spp.) feeding on nectar from common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo credit: Sarah Semmler.
A spurge hawkmoth. This moth was introduced to North America to control the invasive weed Leafy Spurge
A spurge hawkmoth (Hyles euphorbiae). This moth was introduced to North America to control the invasive weed Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula). Photo credit: Sarah Semmler.

 

picture of a beetle

Beetles

  • Two hardened wings
  • Two flight wings
  • Diverse body forms and colours
  • Can be very hairy
About Beetles

Beetles are extremely diverse, with over 8300 species found in Canada.

Not all beetles visit flowers, but those that do are often brightly coloured and quite hairy. The long hairs result in a lot of pollen being transported between flowers. Flower scarabs are extremely hairy, chunky beetles that are often found pollinating open blooms. Flower longhorn beetles may be hairy, but also sport bright yellow and black patterns that make them appear to be wasps. This offers them protection from predators while visiting flowers.

Pictures of Common Beetles that Pollinate
Banded long horned wood boring beetle
Banded long horned wood boring beetle. Photo Credit: Pat Mackay, Dept. of Entomology, University of Manitoba
Long horned wood boring beetle
Long horned wood boring beetle. Photo Credit: Pat Mackay, Dept. of Entomology, University of Manitoba

 

picture of a fly

Flies

  • Two wings
  • Variable antennae
  • Bright markings
  • Hairy or bristly
  • No pollen basket
About Flies

There are over 9600 species of fly in Canada, and some of these species play a major role in pollination and pest control. 

Many flies are excellent pollinators. Flies visit flowers to feed on pollen or nectar, moving pollen on their bristly bodies as a result. A group called the flower flies are common floral visitors, so much so that they have developed colour patterns that mimic bees and wasps. This resemblance to stinging insects offers protection from predators. Other groups of flies, such as blow flies, parasitic flies, and house flies, will also pollinate flowers. Even mosquitoes pollinate! In fact, species of flies with larvae that develop in water or damp material may be dominant pollinators in wetter habitats.

It isn't just adult flies that are beneficial to ecosystems. Fly maggots (larvae) are expert decomposers and pest control agents. The maggots of house flies, flesh flies, blow flies and more help keep us from wading through undecomposed animals, plants, and scat, and return the nutrients held in those organic materials to the soil. The larvae of flower flies are great for gardens and crops. Many species are predatory and stealthily hunt aphids and other soft-bodied insects that cause damage when growing food.

Pictures of Common flies in Manitoba
A black-shouldered flower fly (Eristalis dimidiata) on dry grass. Photo by Sarah Semmler.
A black-shouldered flower fly (Eristalis dimidiata) on dry grass. Photo credit: Sarah Semmler.
A flower fly (Helophilus spp.) grooming pollen from its eyes. Pollen can also be seen on the legs. Photo by Carlynne Millns.
A flower fly (Helophilus spp.) grooming pollen from its eyes. Pollen can also be seen on the legs. Photo credit: Carlynne Millns.
A flower fly (Sphaerophoria philanthus) feeding on dandelion pollen (Taraxacum officinale). Photo by Sarah Semmler.
A flower fly (Sphaerophoria philanthus) feeding on dandelion pollen (Taraxacum officinale). Photo credit: Sarah Semmler.

 

picture of a wasp

Wasps

  • Four wings
  • Long antennae
  • Bright markings with little hair
  • No pollen basket
  • Sting
About Wasps

Despite their often intimidating appearance, wasps are beneficial insects. Of the over 8700 species of Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and ants) we have in Canada, a good portion are wasps. Wasps can be big, ferocious predators, or they can be microscopic and spend much of their lives feeding as parasitoids inside the bodies of host insects.

The family of wasps most common on flowers is Vespidae, which includes the yellow-jackets and paper wasps. There are 100 species in Canada. These wasps are predators that raise their young on protein from other insects. However, they will still visit flowers for a drink of nectar, particularly near the end of summer when prey are harder to find. Wasps can act as very effective pollinators when visiting multiple flowers. 

Wasps are also important for pest control. Predatory wasps catch and eat many of the insects that bother us outside, or cause damage to our trees and gardens. Tiny parasitoid wasps are used as biocontrol agents to reduce the numbers of damaging insects in our agricultural and forest product industries. 

Pictures of Common Wasps in Manitoba
Bald faced hornet
Bald faced hornet. Photo credit: Pat Mackay, Dept. of Entomology, University of Manitoba
Yellow jacket wasp
Yellow jacket wasp. Photo credit: Pat Mackay, Dept. of Entomology, University of Manitoba

 

male ruby-throated hummingbird thumbnail image

Hummingbirds

  • Animal pollinators
  • Feed on nectar
  • Move pollen on their beaks and feathers
About Hummingbirds

Of the five species of hummingbird that may be regularly observed in Canada, we only have one in Manitoba: the ruby-throated hummingbird. Males have the bright ruby throat that gives the species its name.

Hummingbirds specialize in visiting flowers to feed on nectar. They can beat their wings at great speeds which gives them the ability to hover near blooms while feeding. A long beak and tongue allow them access to nectar in cylindrical flowers. Floral nectar provides hummingbirds with the large amount of energy required to sustain their fast-paced flights.

When feeding on nectar, pollen is collected on their beaks and feathers, particularly around the head. Pollination occurs as they forage.

Photo credit: Sandra Coté.

Pictures of Hummingbirds Found in Manitoba
Ruby-throated hummingbird feeding from a cultivar related to wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Photo by William Rideout.
Ruby-throated hummingbird feeding from a cultivar related to wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Photo credit: William Rideout.
A ruby-throated hummingbird approaches a flower to feed. Pollen can be seen on the top of the beak. Photo by William Rideout.
A ruby-throated hummingbird approaches a flower to feed. Pollen can be seen on the top of the beak. Photo credit: William Rideout.
A ruby-throated hummingbird in flight. Photo by Sandra Coté.
A ruby-throated hummingbird in flight. Photo credit: Sandra Coté.
A ruby-throated hummingbird feeds from a honeysuckle vine. Photo by Sandra Coté.
A ruby-throated hummingbird feeds from a honeysuckle vine. Photo credit: Sandra Coté.
A hummingbird feeds from a flower. Photo by Sujata Basu.
A hummingbird feeds from a flower. Photo credit: Sujata Basu.