How Much Pollination Do Butterflies and Moths Do and Are They More Important Pollinators Than Bees?

Significant pollination of many plants is done by butterflies and moths, sometimes exclusively, and they are not the only animals other than bees that work at pollination.

butterfly on a flower

Bees of various kinds, especially honeybees, and other social insects are the most familiar and important pollen carriers.

However, beetles, moths, butterflies and flies are involved in pollinating a wide variety of plants, including many of economic importance.

For example, anise and black swallowtail butterflies are drawn to carrot, parsley and dill plants, and the giant swallowtail likes citrus flowers. Many ornamental flowers, like honeysuckle and many orchids, depend on the ministrations of butterflies or moths.

Flowers pollinated by insects are often positioned, colored, scented and shaped to attract specific ones.

The sweet fragrance of night-blooming flowers draws moths, for example, and their fragrance usually disappears after pollination. The pollen grains are often clumped, sticky and textured like Velcro, with spines, hooks and other protuberances to make it easier for even light insects to pick up pollen.

Flowers that offer nectar to specific pollinating insects often hide it in vessels that require made-to-measure mouth parts to reach it.

A famous example is a Madagascan orchid found by Darwin in 1862, called Angraecum sesquipedale; its nectar is in a tube eleven inches deep. It was not until 1903 that a long-tongued sphinx moth was identified as its pollinator.

An orchid that would require a moth with a fifteen-inch tongue is known, but such a moth has not yet been identified.

Yucca moths and yucca plants have an exclusive interdependent relationship; the moth is the plant’s only pollinator, and its fruit is the only food for the moth larvae.

The female moth gathers a pollen ball with a special tentacle and inserts it into the stigma of a yucca flower, usually on another plant; it also lays its eggs in the base of the flower, and its larvae feed on some, but not all, of the seeds in the developing fruit.

Wasps, hummingbirds and even bats, which pollinate the agave plant, source of tequila, are also important pollinators.

Some plants are self-pollinated; water pollinates some plants; and many rely on wind-borne pollen.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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