There we were, a gaggle of pre-adolescent girls approaching puberty, giggling as we shared the details of the recent talks we’d each had with our mothers. Apparently, the parents had gotten together and decided to synchronize their lectures about the birds and the bees. That was smart on behalf of the parents—armed with the facts, we wouldn’t be sharing misinformation.
But I wondered, why did they call it the birds and the bees? Why not the cows and the horses? I’d driven past plenty of pastures where the animals were “giving each other piggy back rides”! Now that I knew what was really going on, I didn’t see birds or bees as anything remarkable.
It turns out that the phrase has long been used as a euphemism. Poems as old as the 17th century refer to various birds and “humble-bees” and the theme has persisted in popular culture to the present day.
While any plant or animal could stand in as representative of sex, birds and bees are particularly appropriate. Both are essential pollinators, transferring the male pollen to the female pistil and, in doing so, ensuring the continuation of many species.
We learn in kindergarten that bees pollinate flowers. So do other insects, such as butterflies and moths, pollen wasps, ants, flies (including bee flies and hoverflies), flower beetles, and—surprisingly—mosquitoes.
Birds and other vertebrates also play their parts—bats, lizards, lemurs, even carnivorous mammals such as the genet and the mongoose come to flowers for a sweet dessert of nectar, carrying pollen from plant to plant in the process. According to the BBC, “about 9% of mammals and birds are thought to pollinate plants.”
When we think of pollinating birds, hummingbirds immediately come to mind. They may be seeking small insects and nectar, but the flowers are structured in such a way that those long beaks can’t help but pick up pollen at the same time.
Hummers are only found in the western hemisphere, so other species fill their niche overseas. Sunbirds, honeyeaters, and honey creepers pollinate hundreds of plant species. In fact, there are an estimated 2,000 species of birds that visit plants for nectar and insects, and we can assume that most if not all of them serve as pollinators.
Parrots, such as this Rainbow Lorikeet, are particularly effective pollinators, as they often feed on flowers. The lorikeet has tiny hair-like structures called papilla on its tongue, which help gather up nectar. In the process, pollen gets stuck to their head feathers and bills, and is spread to other flowers as they feed.
And while we don’t think of warblers as pollinators, this photo of a Palm Warbler in Florida shows that pollen takes advantage of any available mode of transportation.
Bananas, papayas, and nutmeg are domesticated crops that rely on birds, although most bird-pollinated plants are wildflowers.
While most flowers are generalists, attracting both birds and insects, some species are specialists—a particular bird and the flower it pollinates coexist in a mutual bond of dependency.
(This is also true of some insects and flowers. For example,
Alula (Brighamia insignis) is a rare … [flower] endemic to steep sea cliffs on the island of Kauai. As of the year 2000, fewer than 100 of these remarkable plants grew in the wild. Alula can no longer produce seeds in the wild because its native pollinator moth is now extinct.
At this point, the flower is being hand-pollinated at a number of botanical gardens, but its long-term survival is in question.)
From the plant’s perspective, being pollinated by a bird or other similarly larger animal has an advantage. Birds travel long distances, boosting the potential for the genetic mixing that results from cross-pollination. Species with a lot of variety in their gene pool stand a greater chance of surviving changes in climate and habitat. In addition, birds may help protect the plant from leaf-chomping insect pests.
When I planted my pollinator garden, I tried to include both insect- and bird-pollinated species. It’s truly a garden for the birds and the bees.