The different types of pollinators and why we need them - Earthwatch
Pollinator in yellow flower

The different types of pollinators and why we need them

Pollinators are powerful! There are many different types of pollinators, from buzzing bees to beautiful beetles. They play a huge role in supporting all kinds of life, including humans.

Read on to discover why they are so important and how to identify the different types of pollinators.

What are pollinators?

Pollination is where pollen is transferred from the male part of a flower (stamen), to the female part (stigma), of either the same or a different flower. This is how plants are fertilised so they can create fruits and seeds for reproduction.

Pollinators are animals that help transfer the pollen. They include bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths and beetles.

Pollinators transfer the pollen by carrying it from one flower to the other on their body. This happens when they feed on nectar or pollen in the flower or because they want to take the pollen to use for food later. Bees often carry pollen pellets on their back legs.

Why are pollinators important?

We depend on pollinators for much of our food. Around 75% of crop plants require some level of animal pollination, including many of our everyday fruits and vegetables. Without pollination, we wouldn’t be able to grow enough food to eat.

A study has estimated that the global loss of pollinators is already causing about 500,000 early deaths a year by reducing the supply of healthy foods.

It’s not just our food that relies on pollinators. About 88% of flowering plants are pollinated by animals. It is estimated that only about 21% of plants would not be affected by declines in pollinators.

Pollinators themselves are also an important source of food for other wildlife further up the food chain. Many of our favourite birds such as blue tits and house sparrows depend on insects for their survival.

Without pollinators, there would be far less food, flowers and diversity of plants in our world. It would also be a sad place without the buzz of bees and the beauty of butterflies.

Ugly or beautiful, it is the little creatures that make the world go round. We should celebrate and appreciate them in all their wonderful diversity.

Professor Dave Goulson

Why do pollinators need our help?

Here in the UK, and globally, pollinators are facing many threats. These include habitat loss, climate change, toxic pesticides and disease. In the UK, pollinating insects have decreased in distribution by 18% since 1970, according to the latest State of Nature report. Nearly 50% of wild bees and hoverflies have declined since 1980.

Without our help, numbers of pollinators will continue to fall.

But together we can make a difference for our pollinators. All they need is a helping hand. Research shows that targeted conservation efforts are helping our wildlife. By planting Tiny Forests across the UK, we are providing habitats for pollinators and other wildlife to thrive in urban spaces. 

Help us track how Tiny Forests are supporting pollinators by joining the Tiny Forest Wildlife Count this May.

Types of pollinators

There are many different types of pollinators, all playing a vital role in our ecosystem. Learn about the different types and how to identify them below. We use this classification system to survey pollinators in Tiny Forests.

Bumblebees

There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK. Most of them are social. They make nests, collect pollen and have female workers. The others are parasites, taking over existing nests. These species are known as ‘cuckoo’ bumblebees and don’t have workers, just queens and males.

How to identify bumblebees:

  • Tail will be either white, red or ginger
  • Very hairy!

Honeybees

When we think of pollinators, it’s usually the honeybee that comes to mind. We know them for the honey they produce. Humans have used honey for thousands of years. Honeybees are hard workers, living in large hives made from wax honeycombs.

How to identify honeybees:

  • Wide and flattened hind leg often with pollen on it
  • Colour varies from bright orange stripes to nearly all black

Solitary bees

Around 90% of bee species are solitary bees. Solitary bees are so called because they don’t live in hierarchical groups in hives or nests like honeybees and bumblebees. Instead, they make individual nests for their young.

However, they can be social. For example, tawny mining bees gather in areas of loose bare soil where they make their nest tunnels.

How to identify solitary bees:

  • Hairy, but less than bumblebees
  • Elongated shape
  • Colours are less bright

Wasps

Many of us are not fans of wasps but they are important pollinators too! They are generalist pollinators so they can provide back up in areas where other pollinators like bees are struggling.

Wasps are sociable, living in vast colonies of up to 10,000 workers that build nests in trees, buildings and old animal burrows.

How to identify wasps:

  • Some wasps are very dark or very small
  • Narrow waste
  • Legs are narrow all the way along
Common wasp on a leaf

Hoverflies

As their name suggests, these pollinators hover in the air often in front of flowers rather than buzzing like bees. Marmalade hoverflies and bee-flies are a couple of the most recognisable species.

How to identify hoverflies:

  • Slightly shiny or reflective, though some are hairy
  • No long tongue (proboscis) sticking out

Other flies

Around 20% of British fly species are pollinators. After bees, research has shown that flies are the most important pollinators, visiting over 70% of food crops. 

How to identify other flies:

  • They don’t hover
  • They can be round, hairy or thin

Beetles

Almost 25% of native UK beetles are pollinators. These beetles feed on pollen and nectar. When

they eat, pollen sticks to their hard outer shells (called wing cases). The pollen is then spread to

other flowers as the beetle travels to other plants.

How to identify beetles:

  • Straight line down the middle of the insect which joins their wing cases

Small Insects

Some insects that pollinate flowers are tiny and can be abundant, such as thrips.

How to identify:

  • Anything smaller than 3mm (though some of these are beetles)

Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies and moths, the lepidoptera family, are also important pollinators. Check out our next blog in this series to learn more about their role in pollination and the different species we have in the UK.

Count pollinators at Tiny Forests this May!

Photo credit: Chloe Allison, Beat the Street

Photo credit: Chloe Allison, Beat the Street

The Tiny Forest Wildlife Count is taking place 18-26 May 2024. The count is a simple wildlife survey across the 200+ Tiny Forests in the UK. We’re calling on everyone to get involved and help track how their local Tiny Forest is supporting wildlife.

Connect with nature, boost your wellbeing and discover the wildlife in your community!

By measuring the types of pollinators living in the Tiny Forest, you will help us understand how Tiny Forests are supporting urban spaces. This data will help us bring the benefits to more communities, helping both people and wildlife thrive together.

Join in the fun this May and count the pollinators at your local Tiny Forest!

Unless otherwise stated, photo credits: cover photo by Nathan Benstead, common wasp by Helen Burton and other pollinator photos by Josh Kubale

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