9 Surprising Pollinator Species That Aren't Bees

Orange-Breasted Sunbird with green head, purple markings and red and yellow body sitting on yellow feather

Derek Keats / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Pollination isn't only the territory of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. In fact, a surprising number of animals play a role in the survival of flowering plants. We're taking a closer look at animals around the world that spread pollen in their search for sweet nectar treats.

Without pollinators — from beetles to bats, from lemurs to lorikeets, from geckos to genets, from honey possums to honeycreepers — there isn't much on this planet that could survive. Including us humans. If you want to learn more about how to support pollinators around the world, check out the Pollinator Partnership.

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Black-and-White Ruffed Lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur in tree

David C. Azor / Shutterstock

The physically largest pollinator is the black-and-white ruffed lemur. This lemur is the primary pollinator of the traveler's palm or traveler's tree. When ruffed lemurs reach into the flower to snack on the nectar, they get pollen all over their snouts. They then carry the pollen to the next flower they visit.

The structure of the traveler's palm suggests it evolved for pollination by larger animals. It has flowers surrounded by sturdy leaves that take some strength and skill to open. Those flowers produce enough nectar to satisfy an animal as big as a lemur.

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Honey Possum

honey possum feeding on coral gum flower

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Pollination by vertebrates is called zoophily. While species like hummingbirds and nectar-drinking bats get most of the credit for pollination in this department, there are a few other species that also take part, including the humble honey possum.

This species pollinates Australia's banksia and eucalyptus flowers. The minuscule marsupial grows to only about 2.6 to 3.5 inches long and merely half the weight of a mouse. It's one of the few entirely nectarivorous mammals in the world — meaning it feeds primarily on nectar to survive — so it is specially adapted to assist with pollination.

Aside from its extra-long tongue, which helps it reach the nectar, the honey possum also has a prehensile tail so it can hang from branches as it searches for flowers. While drinking nectar, its long pointed snout becomes covered in pollen, which the animal distributes.

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Lizard licking flower

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Lizards, geckos, and skinks may be unexpected pollinators, but they are highly important. For example, the Noronha skink pollinates the mulungu tree on Fernando de Noronha Archipelago in Brazil. Meanwhile, on the island of Mauritius, the blue-tailed day gecko is the primary pollinator of the rare Trochetia flower. Both of these reptiles have a big job as important assistants in the survival of flowering plants on islands where fewer insects visit the flowers.

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Rainbow Lorikeet

rainbow lorikeet feeding on red flower

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Many birds are important pollinators, but few people would suspect that a small parrot is one of them.

The rainbow lorikeet, native to Australia and Indonesia, is as colorful as the flowers it visits. The species is particularly adapted to feed on nectar and pollen, including having a tongue with tiny hair-like structures called papilla that assist in gathering up as much nectar from a flower as possible. The pollen that brushes against the bird's forehead and throat is spread to other flowers as it feeds.

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Large-Spotted Genet

Large spotted genet, a cat like carnvore

Martin Mecnarowsk i / Shutterstock

Even meat-eating animals can be pollinators, such as the large-spotted genet. Genets are carnivores found in Africa that resemble spotted cats with pointy muzzles and long ringed tails. In a 2015 study, researchers from the University of Cape Town in South Africa caught both genets and the carnivorous cape grey mongoose snacking on sugarbush and reported that these animals contribute to the pollination of the plants they dine on.

Because these animals are infrequent visitors to flowering plants, they don't play a particularly large role as pollinators. But the researchers suggest that because they travel long distances, they may help disperse pollen farther away.

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ant on white flower

Kosin Saetia / Shutterstock

Ants are known for many things, but their role in pollination is probably far down the list. However, when you consider how often ants invade kitchens in search of sugary treats, it's not surprising that they also invade flowering plants in search of sweet nectar. In return, they help plant reproduction.

The plants that usually benefit from ants as pollinators are species that grow low to the ground and have inconspicuous flowers close to the stem. According to the USDA Forest Service, however, there are some ant species that harm the pollen of flowers. Still, scientists are continuing to learn about the role these critters play in pollinating the planet.

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Black flying fox bat hangs upside down in a tree

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Bats are important pollinators, but many people don't appreciate the amazing array of species that pollinate plants around the world — nor how amazingly adapted they are for their job.

For instance, the tube-lipped nectar bat (Anoura fistulata) of Ecuador has the longest tongue relative to body size of any mammal in the world, which helps it reach nectar deep inside tube-shaped flowers.

Bats as large as flying foxes, such as the one pictured here, are key for pollination of plants such as eucalyptus, and they are the only known pollinator of some species of rainforest plants. In fact, bats are so important that some plants have evolved to be pollinated exclusively by bats. One example is agave, the plant from which we get sweeteners, fibers, and tequila. Its flowers open only at night and smell like rotting fruit to attract bats.

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green and orange beetle feeding on yellow flower

Marek Velechovsky / Shutterstock

Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years. In fact, it's thought that they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 200 million years ago. And today's beetles still love flowering plants with close ties to ancient species, such as magnolias and water lilies.

Plants that are dependent on beetles for pollination are called cantharophilous plants.

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Sunbirds, Honeyeaters, and Honeycreepers

sunbird on stem of flower

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Hummingbirds get a lot of credit for pollinating plants in the Americas. Around the world, nectar-eating species like sunbirds, honeyeaters, and honeycreepers deserve an equal amount of respect as key pollinators of hundreds of plant species.

There are an estimated 2,000 species of birds around the globe that rely on nectar or the insects and spiders found on nectar-bearing plants.

While crops like banana, papaya, and nutmeg are reliant on birds for pollination, birds are mainly responsible for helping to pollinate wildflowers.