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Celebrating Pollinator Week: Spotlight on Beetles, Nature’s Overlooked Pollinators

By Kelly Vowels

When discussing pollinators, many immediately think of butterflies and bees. Occasionally, moths and flies also come to mind, but the spectrum of pollinating creatures extends far beyond these well-known groups. Species of bats, birds, and a myriad of insects also play crucial roles as pollinators. Among them, beetles stand out as a particularly overlooked group. While people often picture the hard-bodied beetles found under logs, the reality is that beetles encompass an astonishing diversity. With over 350,000 species worldwide and more than 30,000 species in the United States alone, beetles constitute the largest order in the animal kingdom—Coleoptera.

Beetles occupy a wide range of ecological niches, displaying diverse feeding habits that include hunting, scavenging, parasitism, and herbivory. They were likely among the earliest pollinators, dating back over 200 million years in the fossil record. When flowering plants (angiosperms) emerged around 100 million years ago, beetles were among the primary pollinators of many ancient species. Notably, beetles remain the main pollinators of Magnolia species, which belong to one of the oldest lineages of flowering plants.

Plants pollinated by beetles typically exhibit heavy scents, appealing to the beetles’ acute sense of smell. These flowers also tend to have robust structures to withstand the beetles’ vigorous exploration, which often leaves distinctive feeding holes. Unlike most pollinators that primarily seek nectar, beetles visit flowers to consume pollen as a protein source. While many beetle-pollinated plants thrive in tropical regions, several species, including Magnolias, tulip poplars, paw paws, and sweetshrubs, can be found in places like Bernheim Arboretum. Additionally, beetles contribute to the pollination of flowers frequented by other pollinators such as butterflies, including goldenrods, sunflowers, and spicebush.

 

When contemplating pollinators, it’s essential to recognize the pivotal role beetles have played as one of the earliest agents of pollination. Their ancient legacy continues to influence the ecological dynamics of flowering plants across diverse landscapes.

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