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Is This a Pollinator? Five Types of Pollinating Insects You Can Find in Maryland

Gardeners, naturalists, researchers, conservationists, politicians — everybody talks about pollinators these days. It seems that pollinators need our help and we need to help them help us. However, it is really hard to protect something that we don’t fully know. So let’s take a look at our insect pollinators, how and when to look for them, and how to tell them apart.

Bees

Bees are one of the most important groups of pollinators. Aside from the well-known non-native honeybee, bees are very diverse in terms of size, ecology, and coloration. In our area, bees range from very small (like our metallic sweat bees) to large (like our carpenter bees and bumblebees), and display different colors and even metallic shines. Bees can be recognized because they have two pairs of wings, ‘elbowed’ antennae, and usually hairy legs and bodies. Bees fly and visit flowers both during daytime and dawn, and can be seen on flowers of different colors (e.g., pink, purple, blue, white, yellow).

Bumblebee. Photo: Anahí Espíndola
Sweat Bee. Photo: Even Dankowicz
Mining Bee. Photo: Jenny Glenn

Butterflies

Butterflies have ‘conflictual’ relationships with their preferred plants: while in their caterpillar stage they feed on the leaves and stems, they pollinate flowers in their adult butterfly stage. Maryland butterflies span different sizes, colors, and shapes. You may be familiar with the impressive Monarchs, who feed on milkweed and are able to migrate hundreds of miles, our very own state insect the rare Baltimore Checkerspot, or the beautiful swallowtails. Because of their special mouth shape with a rolled ‘tongue’, butterflies prefer flowers that have long tubes. Butterflies are diurnal and are usually attracted to red, orange, yellow, purple and mauve flowers.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Photo: brdmrksio
Silver-spotted Skipper. Photo: Anahí Espíndola

Moths

Moths are relatives of butterflies, but from a pollination perspective, they differ because the majority of them are active at dusk and into the night. Like butterflies, moths have long tongues that they use to collect nectar from flowers, and thus their preferred flowers are somewhat tubular. Moths can be small or large, but the vast majority of them are attracted to flowers that bloom in the evening, produce strong and sweet scents, and are usually whitish. While some pollinating moths are fair fliers, the impressive hawkmoths can hover and are easy to recognize because they are very hairy and fly like hummingbirds. Even though most moths are nocturnal (active at night), some hawkmoths are diurnal (active during the day), such as hummingbird moths.

Snowberry Clearwing. Photo: Thibaud Aronson

Hoverflies

I hope that after reading this, you will appreciate these little guys as much as I do. Despite hoverflies contributing to a VERY large part of the pollination of both crops and wild plants, they are unfairly overseen, so let’s set the record straight! Hoverflies are relatively small (about half-an-inch). They are flies and thus have only one pair of wings that they carry openly as a ‘T’. Hoverflies often are confused with bees and wasps because many of them have yellow stripes on their abdomens. However, it is relatively easy to tell them apart because they have two wings (versus four in wasps and bees), they hover and make very fast movements when they fly, they usually have huge eyes, and their antennae are very short. Hoverflies are diurnal pollinators and prefer white, yellow and greenish flowers.

Virginia Flower Fly. Photo: John Flannery
Margined Calligrapher. Photo: Jesse Rorabaugh

Beetles

Certain families of this very large group of insects visit and pollinate flowers while feeding on pollen. Beetles that pollinate can be minute to large. One can recognize them because of the hard ‘shield’ that covers their backs and the usual hair that covers at least part of their bodies. Beetles can be active during the day and night hours and prefer flowers that are greenish, white and relatively dull. In Maryland, most of our pollinator beetles are soldier and longhorn beetles. Next time you are around flowers, I invite you to take a close look and I am sure you will have no trouble finding these guys!

Yellow-horned Lepture. Photo: John Flannery
Goldenrod Soldier Beetle. Photo: Mark Nofsinger

This is definitely a pollinator but I still don’t know what it is!

Have you found an insect on your flowers, but you can’t figure out what it is? There is a great tool to identify it, and it is just one picture away! This magical tool is a phone app called iNaturalist. After taking a picture of the insect in question you can upload it to the app and submit it for identification. This app will let you know what is likely to be the species you have seen. It also will let other users like you learn from your observations and help you identify them. Also, besides letting you visually search for observations close to you, the app/website is simple to use, and the users are friendly and helpful. To learn how to use this app/website, refer to this very good tutorial on iNaturalist.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park

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