Who Are the Pollinators? NH's Super Seven
Love apples? Blueberries? Chocolate? Cranberries? Coffee? Thank a pollinator. One out of every three bites of food we eat is delivered to us by an animal pollinator. The ecological service they provide is necessary for the reproduction of over 85% of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species.
New England’s Super Seven
Who are the pollinators? Invertebrates, particularly insects, are by far the most common animal pollinator species. New England has seven types of native pollinators -- six insects and one vertebrate. I affectionately call these the “Super Seven”.
Thanks to the honeybee, BEES are perhaps the most well-known type of pollinator. Unlike honeybees, most bees are solitary, do not produce honey, and do not form large colonies.
Native bees are imperative to most pollination and agriculture in the Northeast, including blueberries and cranberries. New Hampshire is home to a broad diversity of more than 100 species of wild bees across different habitats. These include 70+ species of sweat bees, 30 species of leafcutter and mason bees, 5 species of carpenter bees and 10 bumblebee species. About 70% of native bees are ground nesters; the remaining 30% nest in cavities.
BUTTERFLIES pollinate many types of wildflowers as they feed on nectar. Butterflies seem to prefer flowers with “landing pads”; i.e., those that are flat-topped. Bees, in contrast, seem to prefer tall, spiky purple flowers.
Like iconic monarchs, most butterflies co-evolved with a specific host plant; i.e., to become adult butterflies, their caterpillar young eat only one kind of plant (think monarchs and milkweed). The federally endangered karner blue butterfly (NH's state butterfly), for example, requires wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) to survive. One exception to this rule is the relatively common Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (pictured), whose larva is polyphagous, meaning it can eat many plant species, including willow, ash and wild black cherry.
Related to butterflies, MOTHS are in the same order -- Lepidoptera, a Greek-derived name meaning “scaly winged”. Moth species are far more numerous, however, with approximately 2,200 moth vs. 80 butterfly species in the state of New Hampshire, according to moth researcher and Natural Resources Steward Deb Lievens. We don’t see moths often because most species are nocturnal fliers, sipping nectar from flowers that are open and overwhelmingly fragrant at night.
While most moths fly at night, hummingbird moths, like the snowberry clearwing (pictured above), fly during the day. They not only hover like hummingbirds (thus their common name), but also feed on the same flowers, due to their similarly long proboscis. If you want to see this delightful pollinator, plant Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), the host plant for snowberry clearwing moths.
WASPS, in the same order (Hymenoptera) as bees, are pollinators, too. The rather large yet harmless Great Golden Digger Wasp (pictured above) has golden hairs on its head and thorax which trap and move pollen from flower to flower. These beneficial insects hunt garden pests like grasshoppers and feed on nectar from flowers like the swamp milkweed in the summer. They live solitary lives, and do not defend territory or nests like their paper wasp cousins do.
Some FLIES are pollinators, too. The Margined Calligrapher Fly (pictured above) and its kin in the family Syrphidae are bee mimics. Adult syrphid flies feed on pollen and nectar, especially on large, flat, pale flowers. They’re commonly called “flower flies” because of where we find them, and “hover flies” because that’s what they do.
BEETLE pollinators in New England include the common eastern firefly (Photinus pyralis, pictured) and goldenrod soldier beetles.
BIRDS are the only vertebrates among the “Super Seven” pollinators. Around the world, hummingbirds, spiderhunters, sunbirds, honeycreepers and honeyeaters are the most common pollinator bird species.
The ruby throated hummingbird (pictured above) is New Hampshire’s lovely representative. Beautiful and charismatic, it sips nectar from tubular flowers, inadvertently collecting pollen on its head feathers and bill before darting off to its next meal. Its efficiency as a pollinator is comparable to that of a honeybee.
Outside of New England, in the southwestern deserts of North America, bats are the key pollinators of saguaro and organ pipe cactus, as well as the agave plant, from which tequila is made. The bats of New England, unlike their desert counterparts, are insectivores, not frugivores, and thus not pollinators.
Greatest Threats to Pollinators
The New Hampshire Wildlife Action Plan names several threats to pollinator species or habitat.
Neonicotinoids are broad spectrum insecticides that growers apply to both foliage and seeds and which growing plants absorb. The insecticide accumulates in nectar and pollen, which pollinators consume. Nursery plants are not typically labelled as treated.
Earlier flowering times (plant-pollinator phenological mismatches) decrease the availability of food and forage.
More frequent pesticide use is killing pollinators and non-target insects as well.
Habitat loss from development removes essential nesting and foraging habitat.
How You Can Help Pollinators
What you do in your yard matters! Pollinator Pathways NH asks members to support pollinators in their yards in at least one of three ways:
Stop mowing part of your lawn and create a natural meadow.
Plant native flowers, shrubs and trees to provide food for wild bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Ask your nursery for neonicotinoid-free plants; neonic chemicals are systemic, and can poison or kill pollinators when they feed on flowers
Avoid pesticides and other lawn chemicals that kill pollinators.
If you want to do more, best-selling author and scientist Doug Tallamy advises audiences on his Nature’s Best Hope book tour to take these additional concrete steps:
Reduce lawn by half. If every homeowner did this in the United States, Dr. Tallamy says this 20-million acre Homegrown National Park would be larger than all of America’s national parks combined! And this park would be connected, supporting more biodiversity than fragmented areas.
Plant powerhouse performers. Keystone species, such as native oak, cherry, willow and birch trees, support hundreds of caterpillar species, while asters, goldenrods and sunflowers are among the best herbaceous choices for biodiversity and local food webs.
Decrease light pollution. Change to motion sensor security lights or better, yellow LED bulbs for safer moth and bat habitat.
Let caterpillars develop into adult butterflies and moths by replacing lawn and cement underneath trees with natural plantings. Tallamy’s research shows that 94 percent of moths drop off their host trees as they enter the third stage of development. They land under the cover of leaves bark and soil and pupate in cocoons, emerging as adults the following spring. In the typical yard, most cocoons are exposed to weather, natural predators, rakes and leafblowers.
- Choose the best plants for your area with NWF’s Native Plant Finder
- Learn about pollinators from The Xerces Society
- Join Pollinator Pathways NH, a NH effort to restore habitat, one yard at a time
- Share the work of Doug Tallamy with neighbors and friends
- Consider planting for Species of Greatest Conservation Need in NH
Vicki J. Brown traded life as a marketing executive in Boston for NH’s woods, waters and wildlife in 2016. Today, she consults with mission-oriented organizations in healthcare and the environment. A Founding Organizer for Pollinator Pathways NH, a NH Natural Resources Steward, and a Coverts Volunteer, Vicki is slowly turning her lawn into pollinator and wildlife habitat.