Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Shang Ming & Syuhada Sapno
In this final article in our series on pollinators we look at pollinators with a backbone.
Birds that feed on nectar typically have long narrow beaks. Sometimes they supplement their diet with insects as well, often other pollinators.
Typically, sunbirds and spiderhunters make up most bird pollinators in Malaysia. These small, energetic birds can often be seen in gardens where there are the types of flowers that they can feed on.
Examples: Olive-backed sunbird, Brown-throated sunbird, Little spiderhunter, Scarlet-backed flowerpecker.
Flower structure: Birds are often attracted to large and yellow, orange or reddish flowers. Usually, these flowers open during the day, are odourless and tube-shaped with a large reservoir of dilute nectar at the bottom.
Plants that they pollinate: African Tulip, Crepe ginger, Hibiscus.
Flying at night, fruit bats are a constant presence in urban areas but barely noticed. Fruit bats have long, doglike faces, and they rely primarily on their sight to navigate in the dark, unlike insect-feeding bats that use echolocation.
Fruit bats primarily feed on fruit, but can also pollinate trees that are specialised in bat pollination. Often, these bats fly over long distances from their roosts to feed on flower and fruits, and they are incredibly efficient pollinators for important crops such as durians. The bats lick the dilute nectar of these flowers up with their long tongues, and the pollen gets caught on their fur as they do so.
Examples: Horsfield’s fruit bat, Malayan flying fox
Flower structure: Often, these flowers bloom at night, are large in size, have a lot of dilute nectar, and have large amounts of pollen.
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh
These are pollinators that crawl around flowers. Sometimes they crawl into flowers as protection, sometimes they are looking to feed on pollen, sometimes they randomly pick up pollen while doing something else.
Sometimes crawling insects can pick up pollen as they move about in search of other food. Ladybugs are known to be minor pollinators, and other crawling insects can do so as well. However, they aren’t very good pollinators since they don’t move as far as bees or butterflies.
Examples: Ladybugs, true bugs, beetles
Flower Structure: Plants that can be accidentally pollinated usually produce a lot of sticky pollen.
Some beetles feed on pollen grains and the plants that are pollinated by beetles develop specialised relationships with the beetles that feed on their flowers. Often, these plants produce large amounts of sticky pollen in tight spaces that force beetles to crawl through to get to. These flowers also either have no petals or very tough petals that can withstand the biting damage of beetles.
A good example of beetle pollination is the oil palm, which is mostly pollinated by a small beetle, the Oil Palm Weevil (Eleidobius kamaroonicus) that has been introduced from Africa.
Aside from beetles, small animals like thrips also feed on flower pollen. These can be pests of crops as they feed on flowers and sometimes spread plant diseases.
Many primitive trees from the Magnolia family are pollinated by beetles.
Examples: Oil Palm Weevil, Sap beetles, Fungus beetles, Thrips,
Flower Structure: White, green or yellow flowers with tight pollen compartments or open bowl- shaped flowers. Usually have thick petals or sometimes none at all. Some aroids are known to attract beetles by heating up.
Plants that they pollinate: Aroids, Magnolias, some palms.
Flower brooders are insects that breed inside of flowers, using the flower as both a source of food and shelter. Some flower brooders breed in fallen flowers and survive on fungus that grows inside. Some live in living flowers and damage them from the inside. The movement of these animals from flower to flower spreads pollen.
Sap beetles and thrips can be found living inside flowers, feeding on pollen or the flower itself. These weak fliers can move between flowers to spread pollen.
Examples: Sap beetles, Rove Beetles, Thrips
Flower structure: Usually part of the flower forms a protective chamber that can only be accessed by crawling insects.
Plants that they pollinate: Bean flowers (but they cause damage as well)
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh
In this part of our series on pollinators, we look at the Lepidopterans, or in simple words butterflies and moths.
Flowers that butterflies and moths visit are usually also usable by other types of insects.
Butterflies are primarily day-flying and attracted to brightly coloured flowers. While they are quite well studied for insects, we don’t fully understand the ecology of many butterfly species. There are 1,051 species of butterflies recorded in Malaysia, so it is unlikely we will be able to understand all of them in a human lifetime.
There are a wide variety of butterfly species in Malaysia, ranging from tiny garden butterflies to very large Birdwings. Many larger species tend to prefer shady areas or forests, while a variety of small and medium sized butterflies are common in urban areas.
Golden birdwings are some of the largest butterflies in the world.
Examples: Lime butterflies, Birdwings, A variety of common garden species Species guide
Flower Structure: Flowers that grow in bunches with long nectar tubes are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are usually reds or yellows.
Plants that they pollinate: Ixora, Saraca
Moths are very important pollinators, but since they fly in the darkness they are rarely noticed or appreciated. Local moth species range from tiny micro moths (many of which don’t even have names) to the world’s largest moths like Atlas moths and Lunar moths. In Malaysia, moths are more diverse than butterflies, with an estimated number of species of more than 5000. This pattern is similar for the rest of the world.
Moths primarily navigate using moonlight and stars, while find food and mate using their excellent sense of smell (which is located on their often elaborate antennas). This is why they are endangered by human lighting and light pollution. Flowers that attract moths are often pleasant-smelling.
Hawk moths have very long tongues called proboscis. Plant pollen usually has to stick to this structure instead of the moth body, since hawk moths don’t land on flowers but hover above them. Some larger hawk moths are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds.
This is a continuation of our series on pollinators. In this article I will cover flies, often overlooked pollinators of many plants.
As usual, keep in mind that a lot of the plant examples are not exclusively pollinated by a single pollinator. Often there can be several different pollinators visiting the same type of flower. For example anything that a fly can pollinate is usually also visited by bees.
I’m generalising larger flies into a single guild, and it is likely this group can be divided up into several sub-groups, but fly pollination is so poorly studied that we do not have a very broad picture of what flies are doing on flowers.
Flies usually feed on nectar when they land on flowers. Since they aren’t as fuzzy as bees, they don’t pick up as much pollen, but some are hairy enough to transfer pollen. Mango farmers take advantage of flies by putting prawn shells around their farms. This attracts carrion flies which then also pollinate the mango flowers.
Hoverflies are sometimes mistaken for bees. An easy way to tell hoverflies from bees is their flight pattern – they fly less frantically than a bee. They are not as fuzzy as bees and usually spend more time on flowers. They also tend to have shorter antenna compared to bees.
While pollinating they hunt for smaller insects and are good natural pest control.
Flower structure: Fly-pollinated flowers tend to be shallow and grow in clusters.
Plants that they pollinate: mangoes
Small flies and midges
Small flies are very important pollinators of important crops, without them we wouldn’t have cempedak, nangka or chocolate.
Some are very small and can hardly be seen while flying. These flies typically are attracted to downward facing flowers that are close to the ground. Some plants like Aristolochia have elaborate trap flowers that trap the flies for a while until they pick up enough pollen.
Examples: Small fruit flies (Drosophila spp.), Scuttleflies (Phoridae), Midges (Nematocera)
Flower structure: Usually not brightly-coloured, tube shaped flowers
Plants they pollinate: nangka, cempedak, cocoa, Aristolochia
This group of insects feed on carrion and other rotting material. Some plants take advantage of this by pretending to be rotting meat with foul-smelling and dark reddish or purple flowers.
While the confused insects, (usually carrion flies or carrion-feeding scarab beetles) crawl around the flower in search of food, sticky pollen gets all over them. When they give up and leave the flower, they bring the pollen to other flowers for pollination. Our famous Rafflesia flower uses this pollination system.
Often people ask me about how to make their gardens pollinator friendly. This is a tough question, because there are so many different types of pollinators. Guides usually don’t have all of them in one place.
Here, I’ll explain the categories of pollinators that visit plants, as well as the characteristics of the flowers that they pollinate. But be warned that a lot of the plant examples are not exclusively pollinated by a single pollinator. Often, there can be several different pollinators visiting the same type of flower.
To do this, I dug up a bunch of scientific papers and tried to summarise all of it in simple language here. Some of these categories correspond to categories used by scientists, while some have been simplified and combined for the general public.
Since there are so many pollinators I’ve split this up into a few different articles. This one will discuss bees and wasps.
Bees collect pollen on their hairy bodies and legs. There are 265 valid bee species in Malaysia. 62 species have been recorded in Kuala Lumpur alone (some of these may be undescribed). Bees can be divided into two guilds: large bees and small bees.
These are your typical bees, locally called lebah or sometimes kumbang*. Only honey bees tend to sting, and only if aggressively disturbed.
They vary greatly in size, from 10mm to 40mm in length. Large bees tend to travel quite long distances in search of flowers, and due to this prefer flowers with more nectar.
Many of these bees are long tongued bees, they have long mouthparts that lets them suck up nectar that is deep in flowers. A subgroup of large bees are the very large carpenter bees, which tend to prefer larger flowers that can support their weight.
Flower structure: Usually these are not round and are somewhat tube shaped, often with a petal where the bee can land. However they also pollinate or steal pollen from round, shallow flowers by crawling around inside them.
Plants that they pollinate: tomatoes, eggplants, begonia, Senduduk, Coromandel, many wildflowers.
*In the Malay language, carpenter bees are kumbang kayu, although kumbang is also used for beetles.
This is a more diverse group of bees, but easily missed due to their small size (2-12mm). They include bees that live in colonies like stingless bees or solitary bees like sweat bees.
These bees are slower fliers with less range than larger bees. Some of these bees have shorter mouthparts and cannot harvest nectar from very deep flowers. They feed primarily on pollen, and therefore tend to prefer shallow round flowers that they can walk in and collect pollen.
Flower structure: Shallow round flowers which are not tube shaped.
Plants that they pollinate: Basil, lotus, water lily, Lantana, sunflowers, Beggarsticks,
Wasps are less furry and much thinner than bees. They can be identified by their thin “wasp waist”. While many are predatory, they sometimes pollinate flowers when they opportunistically feed on nectar or pollen. However they pollinate with less efficiency than bees because they lack the fuzz to trap pollen.
But there are flowers that are adapted to being exclusively pollinated by wasps, although a lot is still unknown about this type of interaction.
Examples: Hover wasps (Liostenogaster spp.), paper wasps (Ropalidia spp.)
Flower structure: Usually these flowers communicate with their pollinators by smell and taste of nectar (some of which cannot be detected by humans). Some orchids mimic wasps and transfer pollen as the wasp tries to mate the flower.
Plants they pollinate: Some species of Orchids such as Coelogyne sp., usually these have greenish-yellow colours. At the moment I can’t find any records of Malaysian plants being pollinated by non-fig wasps. (Any help on this would be appreciated)
Fig wasps are an example of a keystone species that nobody thinks about. Without fig wasps the fruiting events of figs which sustain most birds in urban settings would not be possible. The reason being that fig wasps are the exclusive pollinator of figs.
Fig flowers grow inwards, forming round structures called synconium. The synconium has a small hole in it that is just big enough for a fig wasp to enter. Female fig wasps lay eggs within fig flowers, while also pollinating the flower so it produces a fruit structure that the larva can feed on. The new females emerge, mate with wingless males, pick up pollen and escape the fig fruit to continue the cycle.
Examples: Fig wasp (Ceratosolen spp.)
Flower structure: Synconium. Flowers that grow inwards and look like round fruit.
Plants they pollinate: Figs
Cheng, J., Shi, J., Shangguan, F. Z., Dafni, A., Deng, Z. H., & Luo, Y. B. (2009). The pollination of a self-incompatible, food-mimic orchid, Coelogyne fimbriata (Orchidaceae), by female Vespula wasps. Annals of Botany, 104(3), 565-571.
Weiblen, G. D. (2002). How to be a fig wasp. Annual review of entomology, 47(1), 299-330.