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Wetland Pollinators: From the Wind to the Water and the Bees to the Butterflies

Written on: March 13th, 2024 in Natural ResourcesWetland Animals

By Alison Stouffer, DNREC’s Wetland Monitoring and Assessment Program

It’s that time of year again where the days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer, and life begins to return to our beloved wetlands. The sea of monotonous brown and gray will slowly make way for gorgeous greens, speckled with the purples, pinks, yellows, and whites of budding and blooming flowers. And with them, the prospect of pollination.

There are two methods by which pollination occurs in wetlands. First, is that of abiotic, or non-living, processes. For wetland vegetation, the primary form of abiotic pollination is that of wind pollination (also known as anemophily)1. The breeze that can be felt gently blowing across your face is the same force that can carry the pollen of one plant to another. While the dominant form of abiotic pollination, wetland plants are able to rely on more than just the wind to reproduce. Where there are wetlands, there is typically a source of water that can act as an additional vector of transportation for pollen1.

The second method by which pollination occurs in wetlands is that of biotic, or living, processes. This includes all the animals and insects that utilize the wetlands, intentionally or unintentionally picking up and dispersing pollen as they go about their lives. Despite a recent focus on threats to pollinator habitat, there remains a large gap in research surrounding pollinator use of wetlands and wetland-specific pollinators. However, we highlight here three insects that are known wetland pollinators.

Nude Yellow Loosestrife Bee (Macropis nuda)

For many, the word “pollinator” conjures images of plump bees buzzing around vibrantly colored flowers. This applies to wetland pollinators as well. While many bee species take advantage of wetland plants, the nude yellow loosestrife bee (Macropis nuda) is a wetland specialist. This bee species relies entirely on the floral oils and pollen of fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), located in fringe wetlands of New England, for feeding their larvae and building nests2.

Nude Yellow Loosestrife Bee (Macropis nuda). (Photo Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab).

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Another common pollinator is the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This species of butterfly relies heavily on milkweed plants, including swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), to carry out its lifecycle, laying its eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves where they are afforded ample protection to grow into caterpillars3. While not the primary use of milkweed, adult monarch butterflies do consume the nectar of their flowers, helping to promote pollination.

In addition to swamp milkweed, monarch butterflies are frequent visitors of seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens), commonly found in irregularly flooded salt marshes. Specifically, monarch butterflies rely on this wetland plant during fall migration as a critical source of nutrition4. As they feed, the butterflies pass pollen from one plant to another, making them important wetland pollinators.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) (Photo Credit Pam Denmon/USFWS).

Carrion Flies

Finally, and potentially one of the lesser-known wetland pollinators, are carrion flies. These flies are attracted to the smell of decaying and rotting flesh or dung where they are known to lay their eggs. While these insects might find joy in the ickier things in life, they still play an important role in pollinating wetland plants. One such plant is that of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which boasts an unpleasant odor as the common name might suggest. This odor attracts carrion flies into the cupped area of the plant—known as the spathe—where they then pick up and deposit pollen from nearby plants5. Further, the mottled purple coloration of the plant and its unique heat-producing abilities create the perfect imitation of dead animal flesh and tissue5.

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). (Photo Credit: Gordon Dietzman/NPS).

While these three insects discussed here have been linked to wetland specific plants, there exists a plethora of other pollinators that frequent these habitats. For example, generalist insect pollinators—insects that pollinate a wide variety of plants beyond wetland specific plants—have been known to visit wetland ecosystems for food resources. Further, there are species of birds and mammals that are known pollinators, such as hummingbirds and bats, which could be playing a role in wetland pollination. With pollinator diversity and abundance in decline partially due to habitat loss and fragmentation, it is crucial to protect and restore healthy ecosystems, such as wetlands, that can provide the necessary resources pollinators need to survive and thrive.

1. McInnes, R.J. (2016). Managing Wetlands for Pollination. In: Finlayson, C., et al. The Wetland Book. Springer, Dordrecht.
2. Nizzi, S. and Powers, R. (2021). Wetlands as Pollinator Habitat. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
3. (2023). Pollinators – Monarch Butterfly. National Park Service.
4. Snell, S. 2010. Plant fact sheet for Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens). USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center.
5. McCarthy, M. (2020). Turning Up the Heat: Strange (and Stinky) Skunk Cabbage. Tufts Pollinator Initiative.

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