Pollinators 101 - Fascinating Facts About Butterflies, Moths & Bees

You’ve planted the plants that attract and feed pollinators. Your garden is full of plants like butterfly bushes, Echinacea, parsley, and fennel. You’re sure the pollinators love your gardens. You’ve seen them hanging around. But what do you know about them? Who’s really visiting your gardens?

Pollinators are important and their populations are declining across our country. Without pollinators, we don’t eat. It’s estimated that one in three bites of our food is linked to the work of animal pollinators. It’s also estimated that 75% of all plant species depend on animal pollinators to move pollen from plant to plant.

Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly

Butterflies vs. Moths 

Butterflies and moths steal the show with all their beautiful colors and graceful flitting from plant to plant. But are you looking at a butterfly or a moth? Do you know how to tell the difference?

Night and Day - A quick answer to this question is that butterflies are out in the day and moths at night. And as a general rule, this works. But make sure to look closely while you’re watching butterflies because there’s a common moth that breaks this rule, the hummingbird clearwing moth. This moth is out in the day and looks like a hummingbird.

Color – Butterflies are generally more colorful than moths. If you think about it, both have to camouflage while they’re active. Butterflies often blend with the daytime colors of the plants they’re visiting. Moths, while active at night, blend with the light of the moon and the darker shadows it produces.

Resting Stance – Butterflies will generally rest with their wings held up together. When moths rest, their wings lie flat, close to their sides, covering their back.

Antennae – If you can get close enough, you’ll see butterflies normally have clubs at the end of their antennae. A moth’s antennae are feathery.

Body Shape – Moth’s have a wide, stout and hairy body. Butterflies have a more streamlined, thinner body. They do have hair, but not as much as a moth.

Chrysalis vs. Cocoon – You may be lucky enough to find evidence of life cycles continuing in your garden. Here’s how to tell what you’ve found. A chrysalis is the pupae form of a butterfly and it’s a naked shell that covers the larvae as it’s turning into a butterfly. A cocoon is the pupae form of a moth. It’s a hairy, silk-like bag that covers the larvae as it’s turning into a butterfly.

Bees are Perfectly Adapted for Pollinating

Bees are the star of the show when it comes to pollinating, which transfers one male plant's sperm to another plant. This is crucial for plant reproduction.

When we talk about bees, we often think of honey bees, but they are actually 4,000 species of bees across North America. Many are solitary and don't live in hives. They live in our native foliage and are just as important as the popular honey bee.

Bumble Bees busy at work. 
If you look closely at a bee’s body, you’ll see it’s fuzzy with branch-like hairs. As a female bee collects honey, she stores it on her abdomen. It's said that a bee can carry up to half its own body weight in pollen. Interestingly, female honey bees wet the pollen down and stick it to their legs. This means it stays on better during transport. However, female native bees, such as mason bees and leafcutter bees, don't wet the pollen. So, as they fly, more pollen drops from their legs pollinating many more flowers than the honey bee.

Also, native bees tend to gather pollen and nectar at the same time, which is not done by honey bees. They will gather only once food source at a time and only from the same species of flower.

So, the next time you're watching pollinators visit your garden, think of the importance of their job and the many wonderful adaptations they have to get the job done.

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