Pollinator insects are essential in our garden. But which insects are pollinators? We clarify everything.
Many people know that insects play a central role in our gardens. In fact, however, few people are aware that there are numerous other pollinators besides the well-known bees and bumblebees. These are particularly important because wild plants, in particular, cannot be pollinated by every insect; on the contrary, they depend on certain pollinator insects. This makes it all the more significant to be aware of the diversity of pollinators. Which pollinators there are and why they are so essential for us, we tell you in our article.
What do pollinator insects do in the garden?
Even though many pollinator insects are often tiny, their importance to the garden is especially great. In fact, over 80% of our native crops and wild plants rely on insect pollination. In the context of zoophilia, i.e. pollination by animals, the male pollen (which contains sperm cells) of a plant is transported to the female plant organ (stigma). This forms the basis for the formation of seeds and fruits. Thus, pollinator insects are not only essential for the propagation of numerous plants but also make an indispensable contribution to our diet. It is impossible to imagine a vegetable garden without pollinators because only pollinated plants produce large, healthy fruits.
List of native pollinator insects
Pollinators come in all imaginable colours and shapes. Of course, the honey bee is particularly well known but butterflies, bumblebees and other insects are also important pollinators in domestic gardens. But not only insects can be pollinators: Did you know that pollination by birds or even bats is also possible? Especially in tropical areas, they play an important role in the pollination of plants. Find out which pollinator insects are particularly common and important in our country below.
1. Honey bee
Honey bees (Apis) are probably among the best-known pollinators of all. No wonder, after all, the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is not only a useful pollinator insect but additionally produces delicious honey. Honey bees live in associations with about 20,000 other bees and are very social animals that live in fixed states. From about 10 °C and only in good weather, the industrious little animals fly out and go in search of nectar and pollen. The honey bee has proven to be a generalist: Almost 80% of all plants that depend on cross-pollination can potentially be pollinated by bees – making the honey bee one of the most important pollinator insects both in the garden and in agriculture.
2. Wild bees
In addition to the honey bee, there are numerous species of wild bees that are also pollinators. The biggest difference to their famous relative lies in their lifestyle: almost 95% of wild bees live solitary lives, i.e. they do not form a state. In Germany alone, there are nearly 560 different species of wild bees, although the smallest species, the narrow bee (Lasioglossum calceatum), is not much larger than a grain of rice, while the blue wood bee (Xylocopa violacea), on the other hand, grows to almost three centimetres. Although wild bees are rather unknown to laymen, they are of particularly great importance for the garden: It is estimated that two-thirds of the pollination service in Germany is provided by wild bees – which puts wild bees at the top of the list of pollinator insects. The reason for their good pollinator performance is the fact that wild bees often fly at cooler temperatures and even in light rain, while honey bees stay in the hive in such weather. Mason bees, in particular, are considered reliable bad-weather pollinators, which reliably fly to apricots and cherries in particular. But many wild plants also benefit from wild bees, as some of them are highly specialised n native plants – for example, the Bryony mining bee (Andrena florea) exclusively collects the pollen of the flowers of the native plant, bryony (Bryonia).
Although bumblebees (Bombus) also belong to the family of wild bees, they are much better known and also more popular than many other wild bee species. Besides their almost chubby appearance, many gardeners particularly like their peaceful nature. As a pollinator, however, the bumblebee is distinguished above all by its robust nature. Thus, it flies from temperatures as low as 3 °C, defies even slight rainfall and stays on the move for up to 18 hours. Because of their long proboscis and powerful build, bumblebees can even pollinate plants such as dead nettle (Lamium) that are inaccessible to other pollinating insects. The bumblebee is especially popular with vegetable gardeners: Not only does it pollinate tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) better than the bee through its vibration collection but it is also considered the most important pollinator of clover (Trifolium), peas (Pisum sativum), and beans (Phaseolus vulgaris).
Not only their pretty appearance makes butterflies (Lepidoptera) a welcome guest in the garden – many butterfly species also perform well as pollinator insects. In fact butterflies can often pollinate plants that are inaccessible to other pollinators. Thanks to their proboscis, they are able to suck nectar from tubular flowers up to 40 millimetres deep. Yet many butterfly species are often highly specialised and visit only a few, select plant species. Not only day butterflies are active as pollinators: also moths belong to the pollinators and can fly to long-tubed flowers. They are among the most important pollinators of honeysuckle (Lonicera) but also control other long-tubed flowers such as wood honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum).
For many people, flies are just annoying insects that bring no benefit. However, this assumption does not apply at all to hoverflies (Syrphidae). In fact, these little flying artists are extremely important pollinators. Adult hoverflies feed exclusively on nectar and pollen, making them one of the most important pollinators along with bees. Dung bees (Eristalis tenax), for example, are found on nearly all flowering plants but show themselves to be particularly effective pollinators of umbelliferous flowers and bulbous plants. Hoverflies are considered to be particularly robust, so that they often continue to pollinate even when other pollinator insects have given up. In addition, some hoverflies can be used in the fight against pests: For example, the larvae of the common winter hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) reliably eat leaf aphids.
Tip: Closely related to fertilisation is the distinction between monoecious, dioecious, and hermaphroditic plants. You can learn all about this in our dedicated article.
Beetles (Coleoptera) come in all shapes and sizes. Not surprisingly, then, some of them are also active as pollinators. However, beetles as pollinators are often unpopular among gardeners. The reason for this is their chewing-biting mouthparts, with which they pick up pollen but at the same time severely damage the flowers. Although this often looks unsightly, it is not a problem for beetle flowers, which often rely on a variety of flowers. Plants that are particularly well pollinated frequently by beetles include water lilies (Nymphaea), for example but also tulips (Tulipa) or magnolias (Magnolia).
Wasps (Vespinae) are feared by many people because of their painful sting. At the same time, many forget that this insect is also a useful pollinator. In fact, adult wasps feed mainly on nectar, pollen and honeydew. Some plants, such as figworts (Scrophularia) or ivy (Hedera helix), have even adapted specifically to pollinate wasps and have particularly short, easily accessible flowers. Since wasps collect mainly for their own use, but not for brood rearing, they are mostly found in autumn and are important pollinators of late-flowering plants.
Supporting pollinator insects in the garden
Pollinator insects are indispensable in the garden because they ensure the fertilisation of plants. However, the number of insects is steadily decreasing because they lack suitable habitat and food plants. Pollinator insects can therefore best be supported with an abundant food supply in the garden: Various insect-friendly perennials and shrubs, native wild plants and the selection of plants with different flowering times serve as a good basis for an adequate food supply for beneficial insects. Rock gardens, large lawns and bee-unfriendly plants, on the other hand, should be avoided at all costs in your garden. In order for as many pollinator insects as possible to find their way into the garden, it is important to offer a rich variety of different plants. Perfectly suited, therefore, are insect-friendly seed mixes that include different plants for different pollinator insects.
But not using chemicals and organic fertilisers and sustainable soils also make a garden more insect-friendly, attracting more pollinators.