The world of plants and pollen is a grand one, covering all land on earth. Without pollinators we would not have plants, and without plants we would not have food. Here are a few of the beauties who drink nectar.
Birds, bats, bees, moths, butterflies, other insects and some small mammals consume nectar. By dipping into a flower head they are consuming the nectar and subsequently spreading the pollen that is stuck to their body, thereby pollinating.
Current sources say that 1 out of 3 bites of food we humans eat is due to a successful pollinator.
Although there are many different kinds of nectar-feeders, or nectarivores, the majority are birds and insects.
Of the birds, there are three types who do most of the nectar drinking: hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeyeaters. Their bills are shaped for probing flowers; and their kidneys and digestive systems can absorb and break down sugar faster.
Hummingbirds. There are over 300 species in the world, and they all live in the Western Hemisphere.
In this photo, you can see pollen on the tip of the hummingbird’s bill. This punk-rocking hummingbird got what he set out to get.
Sunbirds. From the family Nectariniidae, sunbirds live in the Old World. Even their family name has the word “nectar” in it.
Many nectarivores, like this sunbird below, have a curved bill, perfect for reaching deep into a flower.
Honeyeaters. The honeyeater family is a large one, and includes 190 species of birds primarily in Australia and New Guinea. Notice the bill of this yellow-faced honeyeater, it is slightly down-curved to reach the pollen.
It is not just the hummingbirds, sunbirds, and honeyeaters who drink nectar. Other bird species also drink sweet flower nectar.
The honeycreeper species is endemic to Hawaii. You can see this Apapane, a honeycreeper, has a down-curved bill for foraging pollen.
Parrots have sticky tongues for reaching the nectar.
There are also many insects who drink nectar, primarily butterflies, moths and bees. They have a specialized feature for reaching into the flower called a proboscis.
You can see the dark proboscis on each of these two insects, below.
In this Painted Lady butterfly photo, you can see the white club-shaped antenna pointed upward, and the brown proboscis is curved downward at a 90 degree angle into a flower.
This hummingbird moth’s proboscis extends into the honeysuckle flower.
Insects who do not have a proboscis, like ants and beetles, crawl into the flower for their sweet treat.
Because nectar is a super sweet concentration of three kinds of sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose), most nectarivores supplement their diet with protein (i.e. insects).
Similarly, butterflies use their proboscises to extract salts and amino acids from mud puddles, a process dubbed puddling.
Some small mammals drink nectar, too.
Bats are extremely important for pollinating plants on our planet. The largest bats in the world, flying foxes, are one of my favorite bat species. We saw numerous species in Australia.
They have tiny hairs on the end of their tongues to mop up nectar.
Across the world in Trinidad, the long-tongued bat uses its especially long tongue to reach far into the tropical flowers for nectar. We found these opportunistic long-tongued bats at the hummingbirds’ nectar feeder.
Another mammal who drinks nectar is the sugar glider.
A nocturnal arboreal mammal found in the rainforests of Australia, these marsupials have gliding membranes that extend from their forelegs to hindlegs, allowing them to fly from tree to tree evading predators and foraging for food. They are opportunistic feeders and have a large, varied diet including nectar and pollen.
Birds, butterflies, small mammals and even big mammals like humans, we like our sweets.
In a world that doesn’t always feel so sweet, it is fortunate we have nectar and pollinators.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.