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Hear the term “birds and bees,” and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Why, the facts of life, of course. But as it turns out, these creatures have something else in common: They’re both pollinators. Most people know about bees — but birds? It’s true — and there are plenty of other unlikely pollinators who get a lot less press than their honey-collecting counterparts.

The Importance of Pollination

Pollination is, in essence, the sex act of plants. Plants have both male parts (stamens) and female parts (pistils). It’s the stamens that produce pollen. And in order for a plant to propagate, the pollen from the stamen has to reach — and fertilize — the pistil. Some plants have both male and female parts in a single flower; others produce separate male and female flowers. Some plants are self-pollinating, which means the pollen produced by the flower’s stamen can be used to “fertilize” the same flower’s pistil; others require cross-pollination, where pollen from the stamen of one plant must be carried to the pistil of another plant in the same species. In any case, flowers rely for the most part on pollinators to shake the pollen loose and transfer it to an awaiting pistil.

When it comes to pollination, flowers must depend on the whims of Mother Nature to get it done. It’s pollination that enables a plant to produce fruits and vegetables and without pollinators, we’d have a major food shortage on our hands. As it turns out, about three-quarters of our food crops depend on insects and animals for pollination. Worldwide, about 300,000 species of flowering plants require pollinators to survive and propagate. Obviously, the bees can’t do it all. So Mother Nature has enlisted a few other helpers — and some of them just might surprise you.

A Cast of Thousands

Yes, there are thousands of types of pollinators in the world, and a lot of them do happen to be different species of bees. (Fun fact: There are about 20,000 different species of bees — and most don’t sting.) Honeybees happen to be suited for pollination, thanks to the hairy coat they wear. Each tiny hair helps knock the pollen loose, collecting pollen and carrying it to the next plant for pollination. But bees are just the start. Butterflies and moths are important pollinators, too, and so are hummingbirds. Rabbits, squirrels, deer — even monkeys help pollinate plants in their own habitats.

Of course, not all pollinators are quite so beautiful as butterflies and hummingbirds — or so welcome in our gardens. Other important pollinators include gnats, flies, bats, and even mosquitoes. In fact, without a tiny fly called a midge, we wouldn’t know the decadent pleasures of chocolate. And as far as most tropical fruits like bananas, mangoes or guavas — well, you can thank bats for those delicious (and healthy) treats. As for mosquitoes, thanks to their tiny bodies, they can squirm their way into lots of plants with very small, complex blooms. Mosquitoes are the primary pollinators for plenty of bog plants, including finicky orchids and exotic pitcher plants. And they do their bit for plenty of fruit crops, too.

So the next time you’re bothered by a gnat or fly, think twice before picking up your flyswatter: That tiny insect could be your next meal ticket — in a manner of speaking, anyway.

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