Thursday, June 18, 2015

Celebrating a Plethora of Pollinators

What a wonderful thing the internet is!  How else would I know that this is National Pollinator Week (June 15-21), if I hadn't found out via Facebook?  Since I can't get outdoors right now to go party it up with the pollinators, I had a good excuse to go back through my many blog posts to revisit some of the critters who meet this definition.  Most folks probably think "honeybees" when they hear the word "pollinator," but of course these absolutely essential creatures come from many other parts of the animal kingdom besides the hives behind the barn.  Here are just a few of my favorites, gleaned from my photo archives.

Sure, honeybees are important pollinators, and our grocery shelves would be pretty empty without these workhorses of agribusiness, but even more important are the many other species of native bees, most of which do not live in hives but rather build solitary nests in the ground.  Here's one little ground bee resting at the mouth of her nest, which she has packed with pollen to feed the larvae that will hatch from the egg she has laid within.

And let's not forget the many species of bumblebees, which also nest in the ground, although some do live in colonies.  These musclemen of the apian world are the only pollinators strong enough to force their way into some of our flowers that guard their pollen within tightly closed petals.  The Pale Jewelweed flower pictured here offers its treasures openly to all, but other flowers, like Turtlehead and Closed Gentians, deny access to all but the strongest bees.

We have many different species of native bees and bumblebees, but this is not one of them.  This is rather a Bee Fly, a darling little fuzzy critter with a needle-thin proboscis for sipping the nectar from some of our earliest flowers to bloom in spring.  Those early bloomers depend on these little guys to help distribute their pollen when few other pollinators have emerged from winter hibernation.

How often do we think of flies as important pollinators?  Well, they sure are!  Not all flies dine on garbage and dung, but many are exclusively eaters of pollen and nectar.   This big fella (or gal?) pictured here is one of a group called "Hover Flies,"a group that does dine on pollen.  They do not sting, but perhaps their bee-like appearance wards off predators that would like to dine on them.

Here are two more species of Hover Flies, much smaller ones, busily feasting away on pollen-laden pistils and anthers.  What beautiful creatures they are, with ornamental abdomens and iridescent wings!

Another kind of pollen-eating fly is the Tachinid Fly, usually characterized by having bristles all over its abdomen.   I call them "bristly butts" when I see them on the first warm days of spring, often sipping nectar that has dripped from the trees above to the forest floor.

From bristly butts to feathery feet: yes, this is a Feather-footed Fly, named for the feathery fringes along its hind legs.  Not only does this nectar-eating fly help to pollinate native plants, it also parasitizes other insects that might prove to be pests to agricultural crops.  Let's hear it for these wonderfully useful creatures!

Oh my, what a looker this one is, with its bright orange thorax and jet-black wings!   This is the Argid Sawfly, and it probably does not deserve to be celebrated along with other pollinators, since its larvae are rather destructive of their plant hosts.  But the adults do eat nectar and pollen and thus help pollinate plants.  And it certainly is a gorgeous bug!  Despite being called a fly, it really belongs to the insect order that includes bees and wasps, although it does not have a stinger as those do.

Here are a couple of pollen-eating wasps, and although they DO have stingers, they rarely use them on us humans, because these wasps do not dwell in colonies that require defending.  And because they are so docile, we can safely move in close to observe how truly beautiful they are.  This first one is called a Great Golden Digger Wasp, shown here feeding on the pollen of Virgin's Bower.  Note the fine golden hairs that cover its head and thorax, and the vivid orange band on its abdomen that matches the color of its legs.

This next wasp, also dining on Virgin's Bower, is the Great Black Wasp.  Yes, its body is certainly jet black, but what we notice first are its cobalt-blue wings.  It's a big wasp, big enough to capture Katydids and drag them back to its ground nest, where its larvae feed on the paralyzed unfortunates.  But despite this wasp's size and predacious habit, we have little to fear from this otherwise vegetarian creature.  Only its larvae feed on meat.

Actually, almost all our flying insects would qualify as pollinators, since most at least land on flowering plants and shake their pollen into the air.  But of course, some insects are far more destructive than they are beneficial.  Nevertheless, here are a couple of bugs I chose to revisit just because they are so darned pretty.

This amorous couple are Locust Borer Beetles, and yes, they do bore holes in Black Locust leaves but so far have not caused that tree's widespread demise.  They do romp around in the goldenrod, that's for sure, and so help distribute that showy flower's heavy, sticky pollen. (Note to hay fever sufferers: goldenrod's heavy, sticky pollen is not what's wafting up your nose and itching your eyes, since it can't go far from its flowers without being carried away by bugs.  The culprit in your case is Ragweed pollen, which can waft for miles on no more of a breeze than that caused by the batting of a butterfly wing.)

There is absolutely nothing NOT to love about  this Twelve-spotted Lady Beetle. Not only does it help distribute pollen as it feasts from flower to flower, it also preys on on other insects that would be destructive to valuable plants.  Plus, it's just about as cute as any bug could be!

For sure, we can't celebrate National Pollinator Week without including butterflies and moths.  I have SO many photos of these lovely creatures I had a hard time choosing a sample selection.  But here goes (just a sampling):

The elegant Monarch.  Under great stress now, with widespread destruction of its larval host plants, thanks to the application of herbicides to genetically modified agricultural crops.  Obviously, adults can dine on nectar from many flowers, but its babies have to have milkweed.  Plant some, if you can.

The Tiger Swallowtail, dining on Wild Bergamot

A Great Spangled Fritillary, sailing away from a tuft of Joe-Pye Weed

We have several small blue butterflies that look quite a bit alike,  but this one happens to be the Eastern Tailed Blue. See its little tails?

Often confused with the Monarch, the Viceroy butterfly is a bit smaller and has a black bar across each hind wing.  Here, it is set off beautifully against a bloom of Queen Anne's Lace.

When I looked through my archives of moth photos, I discovered that many of the spectacular ones I have photographed (the Cecropia and the Luna, for example) emerge from the cocoon with no mouth parts at all, and thus cannot feed on either nectar or pollen.  But here's one, the Himmelman's Plume Moth, that does feed on flower nectar and so I suppose could be considered a pollinator.  It sure is a  very odd-looking moth, and so I couldn't resist reposting its photo here.

It's certainly obvious that this next moth came equipped with mouth parts, ones specifically designed to sip on flower nectar.  This is a Hummingbird Clear-winged Moth,  with a long proboscis it can uncurl for feeding, as it hovers with beating wings, just like a hummingbird.  Now, that's what I call  a pollinator worth celebrating!  But aren't they all?


threecollie said...

Terrific post and amazing photos! I was just out taking pics of lots of lovely milkweed along our driveway today.

Woody Meristem said...

Excellent photos of small and often fast moving insects. Great post!

The Furry Gnome said...

Spectacular pictures of all those pollinators!, how do you ever get them so clear?

Laura Lee Johnston said...

Ain't bugs just beautiful?! How is your knee? Doing better and better every day, I hope.

Ann said...

I admire your photography, and your knowledge, and I enjoy your posts! But that knee news has been a very big deal, and I am sorry for your pain! I'd be sorrier for myself not getting to see what you might be seeing, except these blasts from the past are so stunning and fascinating. Many thanks from Ann in Kentucky for your celebrations of the life around us.