Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pollinators, the night shift

 We are familiar with day-blooming flowers and day-visiting insects, bees, butterflies, flies and a few others. These insects usually prefer nice, warm, sunny days to visit flowers. In fact, their muscles need a certain critical temperature to begin functioning. It is possible to see some of these pollinators sitting still during chilly mornings, waiting for the sun to warm them up sufficiently so they can take to the air.

Nocturnal moths are another story. Some are well adapted to colder temperatures; they also have eyes that allow them to fly at night. Fortunately for them there are flowers that bloom at this time. Such flowers are likely to produce more nectar at night; they also release aromas that the moths are well attuned to and that enable them to find the flowers.

So when the day pollinators complete their 9-5 schedule, the night shift takes over. Let us clarify that many of these night fliers are more active at dawn or dusk than in the dead of the night. They are called crepuscular pollinators.

You may be fortunate enough to have one of those visitors to your garden if you have moonflowers, evening primroses, Nicotiana or morning glories. It can be quite a treat to see hawk moths in a regular basis visiting your garden; some seem to have a fixed schedule and show up almost daily at their appointed time. They are large, fly silently and unfurl their straw-like tongues in front of long-tubed flowers like the ones mentioned. They look like hummingbirds drinking nectar while suspended in the air. They have handsome patterns on their wings, not as striking as those of butterflies, but very beautiful in a sedate way.

Other dawn or dusk pollinators are less familiar to most of us. The squash bee is an early riser, following the schedule of squash blossoms and finishing her daily chores just after dawn or at mid-morning when blossoms begin to wilt. They are said to be up before sunrise; however, I have never seen them so early. Maybe I should spend more time in the pumpkin patch and I may catch some of them.

Worth mentioning are truly nocturnal pollinators of a different stripe, bats. Most cactus bloom at night, they are strongly scented and produce big flowers with abundant nectar, just right for such large fliers. In the absence of bats, the landscapes of the West would be profoundly different, without the rich flora of saguaros, barrel cacti and prickly pears.

Night Blooms and their Pollinators
Moths as Pollinators
List of articles
Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors

© Beatriz Moisset. 2011


  1. I knew for years that the big sphingids can generate body heat nearly like birds or mammals. But last month I had to catch a Manduca that got into my tent during a very cold night in the mountains. It was quite a shock to feel that warm little body in my hands - really like a bird....

  2. It sounds like a magical experience. I envy you. I am sure that you have read Bernd Heinrich books on thermal regulation in insects. Wonderful reads all of them.

  3. What a wonderful miracle! We have a Hawk Moth! I have many Carnation plants (flowers) among others on our balcony and I just happened to go out at the right time to see and watch this most lovely moth happily attending each flower, and there are many! I did not know until now we had such beautiful evening guests. Lucky Me!