What are Pollinators?

By Megan Wannarka Edited by Brian Dryska

“Bees are a gateway bug. Once you realize that these honeybees are important that you realize there are over 20,000 species of other types of bees. And you realize that other kinds of bugs are important, and you realize that all these plants are blooming, all these trees are blooming, that you never realized before. It changes your relationship with the world.” 

Sam Comfort (“Queen Rearing Anarchy Style with Sam Comfort – 2019 Alternative Beekeepers Conference – YouTube,” 2019)

When someone says “pollinators,” the first thing that likely comes to mind is a bee, maybe a honey bee or a bumble bee, but typically not bats, birds, beetles or a plethora of other insects that are pollinators.

First off, pollinators are any animal that transports the grains of pollen (male reproductive part of a flower) to a female reproductive part allowing the formation of viable offspring otherwise known as seeds. Water, wind, and even humans are wonderful at doing this without actively being part of moving pollen too. Some plants do not need animal transport of pollen, like hemp Cannabis sativa, which is adapted for wind pollen dispersal.

Flowers attract animal pollinators by color and smell to encourage the pollinator to participate in moving pollen grains. There is an idea that certain colors and smells attract a certain group of pollinators. This idea is called pollinator syndrome. While not entirely scientific, they are a simplified rule of thumb for a researcher to work from.

Figure 1 Pollinator Syndrome Trait Table

One of the reasons understanding pollinators is so difficult is that they span many taxonomies (and of course taxonomies themselves can change). Dr. Jeff Ollerton (Ollerton, 2017) of the University of Northampton, United Kingdom does a wonderful job presenting a picture of what taxa are pollinators and gives an idea of the number of species in each group as well. This big-picture view gives us a good idea of which animals are pollinator, where to find them, and what plants they need for food and nesting sites. Table 1 below from Ollerton’s interesting article is hyperlinked to the full pdf.

You can use Clemson University’s 4H manual (Manly, 1999) on entomology, to better understand the classes, families, and subclasses discussed above, which hopefully will give you a better overall idea of the true diversity of pollinators, and prove it’s not just honeybees doing the work.

Figure 2 Screenshot of page 20 from Clemson University’s 4H Entomology Manual

To break it down further and make it simple I’ve made a handout you can find here:
Want to learn more about bugs? Check out the free class ‘Bugs 101: Insect-Human Interactions’ via Coursera (University of Alberta).


Manly, D. (1999). Entomology. Clemson, South Carolina: Clemson Extension Service.

Ollerton, J. (2017). Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function, and Conservation. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 48(1), 353–376. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-110316-022919

Queen Rearing Anarchy Style with Sam Comfort – 2019 Alternative Beekeepers Conference – YouTube. (2019). In Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hisnSeLN9zk&t=2895s

University of Alberta. (n.d.). Bugs 101 -Insect-Human Interactions. Retrieved January 17, 2020, from Coursera website: https://www.coursera.org/learn/bugs-101/lecture/1qInd/00-01-welcome-to-bugs-101

List of Pollinators from Ollerton, J. (2017). Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function, and Conservation, bolded names are cited pollinators.
Arthropods (Arthropoda) »
Hexapods (Hexapoda) »
Insects (Insecta)
Phylum Arthropoda – Arthropods
Subphylum Hexapoda – Hexapods
Class Collembola-Springtails
Class Insecta – Insects
Order Dermaptera – Earwigs
Order Plecoptera – Stoneflies
Order Orthoptera – Grasshoppers, Crickets, Katydids
Order Blattodea – Cockroaches and Termites
Order Thysanoptera – Thrips
Order Psocoptera – Barklice, Booklice, and Parasitic Lice
Order Neuroptera – Antlions, Owlflies, Lacewings, Mantidflies and Allies
Order Coleoptera – Beetles
Order Hymenoptera – Ants, Bees, Wasps and Sawflies
Clade Anthopila (Bees)

Family Pompilidae (Spider wasps)

Family Bombyliidae (Vespoidae)

Order Trichoptera – Caddisflies
Order Lepidoptera – Butterflies and Moths
Unranked Heterocera (moths)
Suborder Rhopalocera (Butterflies)
Order Mecoptera – Scorpionflies, Hangingflies and Allies
Order Siphonaptera – Fleas
Order Diptera – Flies
Family Syrphidae (Hoverflies)

Family Bombyliidae (Bee flies)
Order Protorthoptera – Primitive Winged Insects

Class Aves (birds)
Order Neornithes
Order Palaegnathae (thinamous, emus, ostriches, and relatives)
Family Maliphagidae (Honeyeaters)
Order Neognathe
Order Gallorserae (fowl, ducks and relatives)
Order Apodiformes (most modern birds)
Family Trochilidae (hummingbirds)
Order Passeiformes (Perching birds)
Family Nectariniidae (Sunbirds)
Family Zosteripidae (White Eyes)
Order Psttaciformes (True Parrots)
Family Psittacidae (Parrots)

Subphylum Crustracea
Class Malacostraca
Order Isopoda

Class Polychaeta

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