Pacific Pollinators: These Five Species Bring the Love to Plants

By Dana Bivens and Sarah Levy, Public Affairs Officers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Island marble butterfly. Photo credit: Karen Reagan/USFWS

As summer begins in the Pacific Northwest you may notice more insects and hummingbirds out and about in your garden or yard. Many of these wild visitors serve an important role in our ecosystem as pollinators.

Pollinators are the creatures that help move pollen grains from plant to plant, which is the first step in the reproduction process. Birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, small mammals, and bees are all examples of pollinators. They visit flowers to drink nectar or feed on pollen and transport pollen grains as they move from one plant to the other. More than 75% of all flowering plants on the Earth need help with pollination. Worldwide, pollinators provide this service to more than 180,000 plant species and more than 1,200 types of crops.

Pollinators are extremely important to food production and for maintaining the amazing biodiversity of this planet. Here are five Pacific Northwest pollinators for you to fall in love with this summer.

Rufous hummingbird

Left: Male rufous hummingbird by Peter Pearsall/USFWS. Right: Rufous hummingbird in flight by Roy Lowe/USFWS

Meet the rufous hummingbird, a tiny roughneck that aggressively defends and chases other hummingbirds away from its favorite food source — nectar. These little birds are a bright rufous or reddish-brown color, and even seem to glow in the right light.

Like other hummingbirds, they feast on nectar and insects, sometimes even swiping their prey from spider webs. When feeding, the rufous hummingbird hovers over a flower and, with wings fluttering 52 to 62 beats per second, seem to float in the air as they drink nectar. These birds prefer colorful tubular flowers such as scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, and lilies. For extra protein, they will snack on small insects such as gnats and flies.

Rufous hummingbirds fly nearly 4,000 miles on their migratory routes, traveling from wintering areas in Mexico as far north as Alaska. They breed in the Pacific Northwest, migrate north along the Pacific coast in the spring, and return south through the Cascades and Rocky Mountains in summer. At only three inches in length, this is a substantial migratory feat for such a small bird.

Rufous and other hummingbirds are threatened by many things including the black-market trading of their bodies and feathers. Some people believe that hummingbirds have supernatural powers or can make the owner lucky in love. You can help us conserve these amazing little birds by hanging backyard hummingbird feeders, admiring them from afar and letting these tough fliers continue their migratory journeys.

Oregon swallowtail butterfly

Oregon swallowtail butterfly by Skim Russel/Flikr

Oregon swallowtail butterflies are known for their colorful yellow and black pattern, unique wing shape, and erratic aerial acrobatics. With a wingspan of 2.5 to 4 inches, this large and iconic butterfly was designated the Oregon state insect in 1979. Found in sage-habitat east of the Cascade Range, Oregon swallowtail butterflies are common in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon sage country and along the rivers and major tributaries in the region. Adults dance along stream beds or among sagebrush searching for flower nectar from thistles, purple sage and balsamroot.

Keep your eyes peeled this summer for the Oregon swallowtail butterfly. Like many butterflies, most of their life cycle is spent as a caterpillar and then in diapause. They are only alive in their adult form for one to two weeks as they feed on flower nectar and lay eggs for the next generation of butterflies.

Obscure bumble bee

Obscure bumblebee by Robin Agarwal/Flikr

As its name implies, the obscure bumble bee is a rare sight in the Pacific Northwest. This pollinator can be found in coastal areas from northern Washington to southern California, feeding on lupine, clovers, sweet peas, thistles, rhododendrons and lilac. Found in grassy coastal plains and meadows, these bees nest above ground in abandoned birds’ nests and tree cavities, as well as underground in burrows.

Bumble bees are important pollinators for many plant species due to their use of buzz pollination. The vibration from the bees loosens pollen, which sticks to the bee and is then transported to other plants where they fertilize and help the species reproduce. Tomatoes, blueberries and many other important food crops depend on buzz pollination.

Biologists believe this bee species in decline due to habitat loss and pesticide use, but exact numbers are difficult to ascertain because the obscure bumble bee and the yellow-faced bumble bee are often mistaken for one another. Limiting pesticide use on your yard and planting native plants is a great way to support your local pollinators and help keep them buzzing for generations to come.

Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly

Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies by Ted Thomas

If you are out and about in grasslands this summer, keep your eyes peeled for the vibrant orange and white patterned wings of the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. Once found throughout the Pacific Northwest prairies from the Willamette Valley to Vancouver Island, this butterfly is now a rare sight. Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies have suffered from habitat loss and pesticide use and in 2013 this colorful pollinator was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Adults emerge from their cocoons in April and May, and are active for the next 10 to 14 days when the mate and the females lay up to 1,200 eggs. After the eggs hatch, the larvae will feed on only a few specific plants such as ESA-listed golden paintbrush. They continue feeding into early July, at which time it then enter diapause and become relatively inactive. They resume feeding in early February until they pupate in March and April, finally emerging as adults to begin the cycle again.

Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly is one of many species that depend on Pacific Northwest prairies. Surprising to many, this habitat requires fire to prevent woody encroachment. Fire suppression and habitat loss due to agricultural and urban development have put many of these species at risk. The Service and its partners have been working actively to preserve dwindling prairie habitat to pave the way for recovery for species like the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly.

White line sphynx moth

Left: White line sphynx moth by Tom Koerner/USFWS. Right: Hovering white line sphynx moth by Trish Gussler/Flikr.

Did you know that moths can be pollinators too? The white line sphynx month is one such nocturnal pollinator. Found throughout the Pacific Northwest and California, these moths are distinguished by their soft brown and white coloring with vertical stripes and aerodynamic shape. Their triangular wings and elongated body resembles a fighter jet as they cruise from plant to plant. Adult moths feed on flowers such as butterfly bush, lantana, and morning glory. Feeding at night and around dusk, these critters pollinate as they travel from plant to plant under the cover of darkness. In California, they serve as the key pollinator to the rare lemon lily.

Often mistaken for hummingbirds, these moths have the ability to hover over flowers and drink nectar with an elongated proboscis, much like their feathered doppelgangers. While most moths and butterflies land on the plant and then feed, the white line sphynx moth can hover, feed, and then rapidly move onto the next plant, making them an effective pollinator that reaches a great number of plants each night. Active from mid-May through September, these moths are a common sight around lights and lamps as the sun sets.

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.