Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of Pollination
In our increasingly asphalt world, it is all too easy to forget the duties of insects when we visit the grocery store. Roughly a third of the food we enjoy daily requires pollination, and we aren’t alone: the animal kingdom depends on plants and their seeds. Despite our reliance on these insects, human impacts—such as habitat destruction and overuse of pesticides—are driving pollinator declines. And the current pollinator crisis is more than just the loss of honeybees. It is the loss of millions of overlooked insects who help move pollen between flowers, creating the diversity of plants that humans—and the world—depend on.
During the summer of 2020, mere months after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was fortunate to spend 10 weeks studying bees in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Field ecology was one of the few sectors not shut down by stay-at-home orders. Situated 2,900 metres above sea level and miles from the nearest town, the research team at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) functioned and found refuge as its own isolation pod.
The High Rockies are a wildflower paradise. Countless species of beetles, butterflies, and—of course—bees, visit the rainbow of flowers dotting every hillside. My days were devoted to catching and marking bees as part of a project studying species’ responses to the effects of climate change, such as earlier-than-average snowmelt in the summer. As a side project, I took to photographing the vast variety of other insects flying outside my windows. RMBL is a mecca for native bee research and is one of the only areas in the US almost completely free of invasive European honeybees (Apis mellifera), who often transmit diseases from their colonies to other species. These honeybees are prized by the media, but only represent one of thousands of bee species responsible for our flowers and food. In fact, of Earth’s ~20,000 bee species, only eight produce honey. Coming from a town where the pollinator scene was dominated by honeybees, I was humbled by the extreme diversity of flower-visiting insects around me—the majority of which are unknown to the US public, yet critical to pollination efforts. If we are to successfully increase crop yields to meet growing human demands, it is critical that the diversity of pollinators is known, maintained, and supported worldwide. This includes recognising the role of other taxa—such as butterflies, wasps, flies, beetles, and moths—in pollination.
Below are my favourite images from my time at RMBL. Here, I highlight the diversity of insects that visit flowers for pollen and contribute to plant pollination. In a world of rapid land-use change, warming temperatures, and increasing pesticide usage, insects are in decline. Through my photo series, I aim to demonstrate that not all pollinators have black and yellow stripes and thereby challenge our honeybee-centred view. It is critical we bear these other insects in mind as the world works to make human-altered landscapes more pollinator friendly.
Image 1: Solitary bee | Around 90% of Earth’s bee species are solitary, meaning they do not live in social colonies in the way honeybees and bumblebees do. Rather, these bees construct holes in wood and soil as a place to lay their eggs. They are typically much smaller than the social bees and come in a variety of colours, e.g. shiny green Agapostemon texanus from the Western US and the blue-banded Amegilla cingulata from Australia.
Images 2 & 3: Bumblebees | The High Rockies are home to many species of bumblebees. As larger-bodied bees, bumblebees are able to produce a unique frequency when they buzz, which has coevolved with certain plants. Fascinatingly, those plants will only release pollen when buzzed at that frequency, making bumblebee conservation critical. Some examples of crop plants benefitting from buzz pollination include aubergine, tomato, kiwi, and blueberry.
Image 4: Hoverfly | Flies are the unsung heroes of pollination. Manoeuvring the sky like dragonflies and hummingbirds, hoverflies help pollinate 72% of Earth’s most important crop plants. As can be seen in this image, many species of hoverfly have evolved to mimic bees with their colouration. While their fly eyes may be a giveaway up close, this disguise helps them avoid predation.
Images 5 & 6: Beetles | Beetles are thought to have been the first-ever insect pollinators, visiting ancient angiosperms and eating their way through petals to reach pollen. Many flowers I observed were occupied by these blue blister beetles, named for their ability to secrete chemicals that can cause blistering to human skin. Blister beetles are considered important pollinators of many prairie plants.
Images 7 & 8: Grasshoppers | Though not typically considered pollinators, I frequently observed grasshoppers climbing onto flowers to feast on their pollen. These insects are covered in small hairs, or setae, which act as their sense of touch, alerting them to wind and potential predators. Here, if you zoom into the photo, you can see that they also appear to pick up some pollen. This pollen may be transferred to the next flower this grasshopper visits.
Sofia Dartnell  is a Zoology PhD student focused on bumblebee conservation. She is currently studying bumblebee brood parasites, or “cuckoos.”