Largely unseen by humans, pollination helps both plants, pollinators, and people, making any and all pollinators incredibly valuable in any and all ecosystems they’re a part of. Nearly 85% of all plants in the world need pollination to reproduce, and a significant amount of our food is pollinated primarily by bees. There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees in the world that help pollinate plants but other pollinators include certain species of butterflies, beetles, birds, bats, wasps, moths, and others.
And like the rest of the world, the Pacific Northwest is home to many pollinating species!
The northwest is home to many bee species but the major bee groups in the area include bumblebees, mason bees, sweat bees, mining bees, leafcutter bees, and cuckoo bees. Here are some common bees you might come across in the northwest.
Blue Orchard Mason Bees (Osmia lignaria)
These solitary arthropods look very similar to flies but are in fact incredibly efficient pollinators for native crops in North America. Blue Orchard Mason Bees are the same size as honeybees but have a dark metallic blue color to them. They’re also solitary bees and individuals tend to their own brood rather than having a hive of a queen bee and her worker bees. Orchard mason bees are also non-aggressive, only stinging if roughly handled or trapped. Bee hotels are particularly great for this specific species, as female orchard mason bees tend to nest in existing holes in wood.
European Honeybees (Apis mellifera)
These bees are some of the most well-known insects and can be immediately recognized by many. European honeybees belong to a highly complex social structure with three castes of bees. As the largest, the queen bee is the breeding female and the one in the hive that the other bees follow. Drone bees are the second largest in size and are male. Lastly, there are the small worker bees that are non-breeding females. The physical structure of a hive can be built inside many areas, like rock crevices, hollow trees, in attics, or underneath a porch.
Western Bumblebees (Bombus occidentalis)
Found throughout the west coast of North America and other parts of the American West, the Western Bumblebee is a general forager and helps pollinate numerous plants, particularly the glacier lily, scarlet gilia, and snowberries. There are a few color variations to the Western Bumblebee but they’re generally fuzzy with stripes of black, yellow, and a little bit of white.
In addition to bees, there are several butterfly species found in the Pacific Northwest at various parts of the year. Butterflies aren’t as efficient at pollination compared to bees, as their long, thin legs make it difficult for them to pick up a lot of pollen on their bodies.
Monarch Butterflies are gorgeous insects that are known for their orangeish color and migration across North America. There are two populations on the continent that are separated by the Rocky Mountains and their presence in a certain area will depend largely on the time of year, as they are one of the few migratory insects. On the west coast, monarch butterflies can be found as far north as southern Canada and will migrate to coastal California to spend the winter. The eastern population spends winters in the cool, high mountains of central Mexico and summers east of the Rocky Mountains. A small number of these butterflies can be found here in the Pacific Northwest during the summer.
It takes several generations of these butterflies to make the migration possible, especially for those who live east of the Rocky Mountains. But some scientists believe that monarchs have been migrating all across North America for thousands of years. Every year, large populations of these insects will travel thousands of miles and habitat loss in the US and Mexico has taken a huge toll.
Oregon Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio oregonius)
These butterflies are a colorful and spectacular subspecies of the swallowtail butterfly. The Oregon swallowtail is primarily black and yellow-beige with spots of blue and bright orange-red near the bottom of their lower wings. While swallowtail species can be found from the Arctic Circle to Mexico, the Oregon swallowtail is only found in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and south-central British Columbia.
The Island Marble (Euchloe ausonides insulanus)
Found solely on San Juan and Lopez Islands off the coast of western Washington, the Island Marble butterfly was thought to be extinct in 1908. Rediscovered during a prairie butterfly survey at American Camp in 1998, this butterfly species is a white and pale green color with a marbled greenish-yellow pattern under its wings. It looks very similar to the Cabbage White butterfly that feeds on the same plants but Island Marbles are greener.
Hummingbirds are tiny, brightly colored birds with thin beaks and a heart rate of 1,200 beats per minute. While these birds are tiny, they feed 5-8 times an hour because they need to consume roughly half their weight in sugar every day. In addition to sugar water from hummingbird feeders and insects, these birds are well-adapted pollinators that use their tube-like tongues to drink nectar from bright flowers. In Washington, there are seven hummingbird species: Anna’s, black-chinned, broad-tailed, Calliope, Costa’s, Ruby-Throated, and Rufous.
Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna)
While this species is originally native to California, Anna’s hummingbirds are adaptable and over the last few decades, their range has expanded north and east, meaning you can find them along the Oregon and Washington coasts and in the southern parts of Arizona. Adults of both sexes stand roughly 4 inches tall and are mostly metallic green in color with bits of grey and brown. Adult males have a strikingly beautiful rose-pink throat and crown that can be seen in direct sunlight.
Fun fact: Anna’s Hummingbirds get their name from Anna Massena, a 19th century French Duchess and a big supporter of science.
Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus)
These hummingbirds look similar to Anna’s hummingbirds but have slightly different coloring. The males of this species, for example, have a rose-magenta throat and white breast. Broad-tailed hummingbirds can be found in high-elevation meadows, evergreen forests, and pine-oak and pinyon-juniper woods.
Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus)
Despite its aggressive nature, the Rufous hummingbird is an important pollinator in the Pacific Northwest and nests farther north than any other hummingbird. With a copper penny hue to them and a height of 3.5-4 inches, male Rufous hummingbirds will often defend a patch of meadow flowers from intruders, including larger birds.
You could make the argument that pollinators are some of the most important insects, arthropods, and birds in the world, particularly for flowers and humans. Without pollinators, we wouldn’t have food and drinks like apples (and all sorts of tree fruits), grapes, coffee, avocados, strawberries, tomatoes, and so much more. There are many staple foods, like wheat, rice, and corn, that do not need pollinators in order to grow and reproduce but for many people, things would be drastically different without pollinators.
Like the rest of the world, the Pacific Northwest is home to many types of pollinators, including several species of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and bats!
How many types of pollinators have you seen before? Let me know in the comments!