Since I have a photo album dedicated to the neotropical pollinators that I was lucky enough to see, I figured I would write a post with some more detail about their diversity! First off, what does “neotropical” actually mean? Simply, it means Central and South America (shaded in the map below). More scientifically, “neotropical” is one of the Earth’s eight ecozones.
Each ecozone contains a variety of habitats (for example, the neotropical ecozone has desert, coastal, grassland, mangrove, and forest habitats) and is defined by the evolutionary history of its plants and animals. Now, let’s get to the pollinators!
For solidarity, I must start with the bees. There are about 416 species of bees in Costa Rica that
belong to 5 different families. The bees I saw most often were stingless bees and orchid bees. Both are part of the same family as honey bees: Apidae. While orchid bee females have stingers just like honey bees, stingless bees (as you may have guessed) don’t. So, how do stingless bees defend themselves? They bite. (Look at those mandibles!) Some bees die
in defense of their nest (just like honey bees!)—their biting fights can get pretty intense. Stingless bees are important pollinators for 9 crop species. In Costa Rica, coffee yields depend on the stingless bees! Orchid bees are important pollinators for orchids (surprise!) and other flamboyantly scented flowers. In the rainforest, bees alone pollinate half of all the canopy trees and lianas (cool vines!). While they are not part of the native bee fauna, I must admit, I was happy to see some honey bees in Costa Rica too!
While I saw mostly paper wasps in Costa Rica, an important wasp pollinator in the neotropics is the fig wasp. A fig is not technically a fruit but rather a cluster of tiny flowers and seeds which require a specialized pollinator. Female fig wasps are tiny enough to crawl inside the fig. Once inside, she lays her eggs while fertilizing the fig with pollen she obtained from the fig she was born in! There is an awesome article (and video) on this process here.
The diversity of butterflies in the tropics is absolutely stunning! There are about 1,251 different species of butterflies in Costa Rica. Some that I saw were huge blue morphos (that can get up to 5 – 8 inches in size), colorful heliconius butterflies, and nymphalid butterflies sporting their false heads (to confuse a predator). Butterflies tend to pollinate flowers that are extremely colorful but not necessarily strongly scented.
In New England, we’re used to some pretty drab-looking moths. In Costa Rica, there are about 8,000 species of moths, and some of them have some crazy-looking antennae. These fuzzy antennae (and the rest of the moth’s fuzzy body) make moths great pollinators. Moths tend to pollinate flowers that are pale and sweet-smelling. In a Costa Rican dry forest, hawkmoths (which are sometimes confused for hummingbirds) are primary pollinators for about 10% of the tree species.
A lot of birds function as pollinators but for the purpose of this blog post, my favorites—the hummingbirds! As a New Englander who is used to seeing the same two species of hummingbird, I was amazed by the diversity of the little guys (or girls) in Costa Rica. I have pretty good pictures of about 5 different species of hummingbirds but that’s nothing—Costa Rica is home to 50 different species! Hummingbirds are important pollinators in the montane forests of Costa Rica and tend to go for brightly colored
flowers that have a tube-like structure. The hummingbird’s long beak makes it possible for it to reach the nectar inside the flower.
They do more than suck blood. Nectar feeding bats have long noses, weak teeth, and long tongues. They tend to go for flowers that are pale in color and almost musty in scent. Frugivorous bats (which only eat fruit), are important in tropical forest succession (i.e. change). Although they aren’t “pollinators” in the technical sense of the word, they do disperse seeds. The Honduran Ghost Bat (or Honduran White Bat) is an example of a (very cute) frugivorous bat. During the day, these bats roost under large leafs and at night, they search for food. After eating some fruit, bats poop out the seeds while in flight, allowing plants to disperse over a relatively large range.
Other pollinators that are often forgotten are beetles, flies, and weevils. Insects (and bats) tend to have a bad rap but they’re extremely important to the global ecosystem as we know it!