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What are pollinators?

A pollinator is an animal that moves pollen between flowers, aiding in fertilization. Although we might first think of bees as pollinators, birds, rodents, butterflies, beetles, moths, and bats can also pollinate flowers. Some plants are even pollinated by the wind!

Why are they important?

Plants are stationary—meaning they can't move around—so they need help finding other plants with which to reproduce. Pollinators are essential for this process! They help move pollen from flower to flower, fertilizing plants and leading to the formation of fruit and seeds. The pollinators also get something from this interaction: they take nectar, which is their food, from the flowers they visit. Plants and pollinators need each other!

Pollinators and Climate Change

Plants and pollinators rely on each other and these relationships have been created on an evolutionary time scale. Both plants and pollinators have phenological cycles that need to align with each other. Can you think of an early spring day when you've seen bees buzzing around new flower blossoms? If the flowers bloomed before the bees emerged, the flowers would not get pollinated and the bees would have no food. As climate change alters the timing of seasonal events in plants, the timing may not align with pollinators in the way it has historically. This can negatively impact both the plants and the pollinators. We need your help monitoring these changes so scientists can better understand them.

Pollinators come in all shapes and species. But for our purposes, here are a few of the most common:


  • Small, colorful birds with long bills and tongues used to feed nectar

  • Hover in mid-air to rapid wing-flapping rates produced humming sound


  • Front wings modified to form hard wing covers

  • Antennae long and slender or clubbed at the tips

Butterflies and Moths

  • Two pairs of large membranous wings largely or entirely covered with colorful scales

  • Mouthparts adapted for sucking (proboscis) usually in the form of a coiled tube


  • One pair of wings

  • Short, stubby antennae in a V-shape

  • Large, compound eyes (helmet-like appearance)

  • No pollen-carrying structures on legs


  • Two pairs of wings

  • Eyes of sides of their heads (heart-shaped)

  • Bodies slender, pointed, shiny

  • Little to no hair, no adaptations to carry pollen

North America is also home to a great diversity of native bees (nearly 4,000 species) as well as a few non-native bees (30 species, including the European honey bee). Here are some that you might encounter in the field:

Honey Bees

  • Skin of abdomen is yellow/orange

  • Abdomen striped, torpedo-shaped

  • Pollen carried as moistened pellet in “baskets” on hind legs

  • 1-1.5 cm

Small Bees

  • Two pairs of wings

  • Eyes on sides of their heads (heart-shaped appearance)

  • Bodies hairy, often loose mass of dry pollen grains clinging to hairs

  • <1 cm

Bumble Bees

  • Large, furry bodies

  • Mostly black with stripes of yellow, white, or even bright orange

  • Noisy, bumbling flight

  • Pollen carried as moistened pellet in “baskets” on hind legs

  • >1 cm

Large Bees

  • Two pairs of wings

  • Eyes on sides of their heads (heart-shaped appearance)

  • Bodies hairy, to carry pollen

  • >1 cm

Other Bees

  • Sweat Bee

  • Metallic Green Sweat Bee

  • Small Sweat Bee

  • Long-horned Bee

  • Digger Bee

  • Small Carpenter Bee

  • Large Carpenter Bee

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