Incredible Ways Plants Attract Pollinators

Amazing ways plants attract pollinators

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There are around 250,000 types of flowering plants in the world and that’s just the ones we know about. However, if these plants are to survive then they need to reproduce. But plants do not reproduce in the same way that humans and other animals do; they rely on pollination.

Pollination can happen in a variety of ways and one of these methods is through animals and insects transferring pollen from one plant to another, thus aiding in reproduction.

The thing is that, with such a wide selection of plants to choose from, pollinators need to be attracted. And that’s where plants suddenly develop this incredible ability to trick and deceive pollinators into coming to them.

What is Plant Pollination?

Plant pollination process

In the simplest terms, pollination is the way in which plants reproduce. It’s a totally different way of reproducing, compared to humans but one thing that both methods have in common is the transfer of cells between males and females.

But with plants, there aren’t two separate genders; each plant has a male part and a female part. For them to reproduce, the plants need pollen to be transferred from the male part (the anther) to the female part (the stigma).

It doesn’t have to be within the same plant. Imagine a bee lands on one flower and takes pollen from its anther. As long as that bee then deposits the pollen onto the stigma of another plant from the same species, reproduction stands a good chance. And it’s pretty amazing how these seemingly inanimate lifeforms handle the addition of this pollen to their stigmas.

Once the pollen is deposited, the plant makes a pollen tube through its stalk to connect the stigma to the ovary. After this, the grains of pollen send sperm into the ovary where fertilization happens. This causes a new seed to be produced. The plant can then release this seed and it is able to form a new plant.

Types of Plant Pollination

Regardless of how the plant reproduces, it has to undergo pollination in order for this to happen. Plants can pollinate in one of two ways; cross-pollination and self-pollination.


Cross-pollination in plants

Cross-pollination relies on moving pollen from one plant to another. This involves another animal or element, such as wind or water, moving the pollen so this is the more complex method of the two.

However, one of the major benefits of cross-pollination is greater diversity within species. This is because different plants are sharing and spreading their genetics so the result is more unique offspring. This diversity ensures more resilient flowering plants that can stand up against disease and changing conditions.

One of the greatest risks of cross-pollination is the chance of pollen wastage. Once the pollen is taken from the first flower, there is no guarantee that it will safely arrive at the stigma of another, lowering the chances of successful reproduction.


Self-pollination in plants

Self-pollination, as the name suggests is where a plant is able to pollinate itself. It’s an incredibly simple, yet effective method whereby the pollen falls directly from the male part of the flower onto the female part. Unlike cross-pollination, plants that self-pollinate do not benefit from the same kind of genetic diversity.

It’s worth remembering that not all self-pollinating plants work in the same way as others when it comes to pollination. Within self-pollination, there are two ways the plant might perform this:

  • Autogamy occurs when pollen falls from the anther of the flower onto the stigma of the same flower.
  • Geitonogamy occurs when the pollen falls from the anther of one flower onto the stigma of another of the same plant.

The great thing about self-pollinating plants is that they do not have to rely on external factors so stand a greater chance of reproducing. While recessive characteristics are eliminated through this type of pollination, there is a risk that plants won’t develop new features, so won’t handle changing conditions as well.

Types of Pollinating Agents

Types of pollinating agents (abiotic & biotic pollination)

There are several ways that pollen can be moved between plants. Abiotic pollination is not reliant on animals or organisms for pollination but rather relies on elements such as water and wind. Within this type of pollination, it’s more common that the plants would rely on wind, with as many as 98% of abiotic pollination being done this way. The remaining 2% is done by water.

On the other hand, biotic pollination relies on animals to move pollen between plants. This is the most common type of pollination, with as much as 80% being performed this way. Let’s take a closer look at each type of pollinating agent.

Animal & Insects

So many plants rely on animals and insects for pollination; this is biotic pollination. Fruit and vegetable plants such as strawberries, zucchini, peas, apples, and raspberries all rely on animal or insect pollination. Hibiscus, fuchsia, orchids, trumpet vine, and eucalyptus are also reliant on animal pollinators.

As we currently understand it, there are around 200,000 types of animal or insect pollinators which include things like bees, butterflies, bats, birds, moths, and beetles, among others. This is one of the reasons that it’s so important to attract wildlife to your garden as it will help your flowers to thrive.


The main type of abiotic pollination is wind. This accounts for up to 98% of this type of pollination and is relied upon by several flower species. These include many of our most important crops such as wheat, oats, rice, and barley as well as nut-producing trees like pecan and walnut.

Wind pollinated plants tend to grow closer together as this increases the chance of successful pollination. It’s thought that plants developed the ability to pollinate using the wind due to the inactivity of animal pollinators.

Generally speaking, wind-pollinated plants are not as brightly colored as insect or animal-pollinated plants as there is no need to attract them.


The second type of abiotic pollination, and the less common of the two, is water pollination. Only around 2% of abiotic plants use this method but it is still viable for several species including things like the lotus flower and the water lily as well as waterweed, hydrilla, and eelgrass.

In some cases, rather than the water only transferring pollen, it may transfer an entire anther. With other varieties, a flower may rise to the surface of the water extending its fertile anther towards the equally extended stigma of a neighboring plant.

Why is Pollination so Important?

Why is pollination so important?

The most obvious benefit of pollination is that plants are able to reproduce. But why is this so important and does it have other advantages?  The short answer is yes, but let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons pollination is so crucial.

Food Production

As many as 87 of the most important food crops in the world wouldn’t survive without animal pollination. To put this into perspective, for the USA, that is around one-third of the annual food crops for humans; imagine having a third of your food taken away and you begin to see why pollination plays such an essential role.

Prevent Soil Erosion

Flowering plants can benefit the earth in ways we wouldn’t immediately think about. For example, their roots hold the soil in place and this prevents erosion. But if it weren’t for pollination, these plants wouldn’t exist and the soil would suffer as a result.

Moreover, as rain falls onto the leaves of these plants, the impact of it hitting the earth is buffered.

Fight Global Warming

You might not think so, but pollination is helping in the fight against global warming. According to scientists, around 90% of the world’s flowering plants rely on animal pollination and when this happens, the plants are able to retain carbon within their woody stems and other parts of the plant.

Once reproduction is over, parts of the plant fall to the ground and this carbon is transferred into the soil. When it is in the soil, carbon is not in the atmosphere where it can cause damage and speed up global warming.

Support Wildlife

It isn’t only humans that benefit from having a wide range of crops and plants. Other types of wildlife need plants for food and pollination supports this. Not only that, but a wide range of species also use plants and trees for living, shelter, and many other things. Without them, we wouldn’t have anywhere near as diverse a range of animals, birds, and insects in our ecosystems.

Cycle Nutrients

When pollination occurs, nutrients are cycled between plants, other plants, and animals. For example, pollination is responsible for proteins and lipids that aid in bee reproduction, so pollination and pollinator health go hand in hand.

Plants That Deceive Pollinators

Plants are pretty amazing and they have a few handy tricks up their sleeves to attract pollinators. One of the most fascinating ways that they do this is through deception. Plants may use a variety of tactics, including mimicry to make themselves look like an insect.

Other plants will use their scent to attract pollinators as well as bright colors. Since bees and other animals require nectar, acting as a food source is a viable way to attract pollinators. Some plants even have nectar guides which are almost like little road maps guiding the insect to its food source!


Orchids are potentially one of the most diverse types of plant in the world with more than 28,000 species having currently been discovered. Because of this large number, orchids use a huge variety of ways to deceive pollinators.

Some orchids are self-pollinating, but around a third of all species rely on pollinators, and they have some unique ways of attracting their attention. For example, mimicry is common among orchids that make themselves look like insects.

They’ll also use traps and nectar as a reward, so they have no trouble in luring in as many pollinators as they need.

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) has a striking resemblance to a female bee, and as such, males are instantly drawn in.

The bee orchid starts flowering during spring and continues to do so through the summer months. These plants thrive in chalky or limestone soils in grassy areas and can grow up to 19.6-inches (50 cm) in height.

The lip of the flower has a striking resemblance to a female bee, and as such, males are instantly drawn in. The males will attempt to mate with the flower, and while they are doing this, pollen is attached to them.

Note that this type of orchid can self-pollinate, depending on its location. For example, bee orchids in the UK do not attract pollinators but rely on self-pollination.

Hammer Orchids (Drakaea spp.)

Hammer Orchids (Drakaea spp.) relies on pollination by thynnine wasps
Jean & Fred Hort / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Sometimes called the king in his carriage, the hammer orchid can grow up to ten-inches (25 cm) in height. They’re usually found in forest clearings and have dark purple flowers. 

The hammer orchid relies on pollination by thynnine wasps and as such, needs a way to lure them in. What’s fascinating about this plant is how closely the labellum of the flower resembles the female of this wasp species. The plant will emit a chemical that draws male thynnine wasps right in.

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) uses a trap to encourage pollinators

The pink lady’s slipper grows in both Eurasia and the Americas. It gets its name from the slipper-shaped flowers and grows in a multitude of locations including forests, woodlands, swamps, and bogs. It’s also commonly found growing on rocks.

This type of orchid uses a trap to encourage pollinators. If the insect wants to get to the food supply of the flower then it must enter the trap via the anther which means pollen will rub off onto the insect. When it flies away, this pollen is transferred to another flower.

Bucket Orchids (Coryanthes spp.)

Bucket Orchids (Coryanthes spp.) have flowers that are shaped like buckets

As their name may suggest, bucket orchids have flowers that are shaped like buckets. They release an alluring scent that draws in bees and when they land on the flower, they slip into this ‘bucket’ where they become covered in pollen.

Even more amazing is that, while the bee is trying to escape, little pollen packets deposit a glue-like substance and the flower will not let the bee go until this has dried. Should the bee then go on to land on another bucket orchid, it will fall back inside and the pollen will attach to the stigma.

Bucket Orchids (Coryanthes spp.) release an alluring scent that draws in bees and when they land on the flower, they slip into this ‘bucket’ where they become covered in pollen

These are tropical orchids that are usually found growing in Central and South America and can grow as wide as 11.8-inches (30 cm).

Dracula Orchid (Dracula lafleur)

Dracula Orchid (Dracula lafleur) use mimicry to attract pollinators and they do this by posing as a mushroom

Dracula orchids can be found in the forests of South and Central America and there are as many as 118 species of this particular type of orchid.

What’s super special about them is that they use mimicry to attract pollinators and they do this by posing as a mushroom! Not only do they have a similar appearance to the fungus but the labellum of the plant also emits a mushroom-like aroma.

Both of these things are attractive to the fungus gnat fly which comes to lay its eggs on the plant and in turn, pollinates it. According to research, it has been shown that some dracula orchids have a spotted appearance and this seems to attract even more of its target flies.

Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera) uses mimicry to attract pollinators by looking like a fly

Fly orchids are mid-sized plants that can grow up to 23-inches (60 cm) in height and produce their flowers during spring, typically between May and June. This particular type of orchid is native to Europe and can often be found growing in Scandinavian regions, the Baltic states, and in Greece.

The fly orchid uses mimicry to attract pollinators by looking like a fly. However, this also attracts the digger wasp which is an important pollinator for this species. To further attract the attention of wasps, the fly orchid emits a scent that is the same as the pheromone scent given by female wasps.

Flying Duck Orchid (Caleana major)

Flying Duck Orchid (Caleana major) tricks pollinators is by mimicking a duck in flight

Sometimes called the large duck orchid, the flying duck orchid is found in the southern and eastern parts of Australia. It can grow up to 15.7-inches (40 cm) and prefers coastal woodlands, swamps, and shrublands.

The way that the flying duck tricks pollinators is by mimicking a duck in flight. This is particularly attractive to the male sawfly who flies in and then becomes trapped as the ‘neck’ portion of the ‘duck’ snaps shut and encloses the unsuspecting fly.

Inside the trap, the sawfly whizzes around trying to escape. As it does this, it becomes covered in pollen so that, when the plant releases it, after around a minute, it’s ready to go on and pollinate another flying duck orchid.

Birds of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae)

Birds of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae)

While the bird of paradise is native to southern parts of Africa, it has now been naturalized in many other locations around the world including the Americas and parts of Europe. The flowers are brightly colored and resemble a bird’s head.

These flowers are adapted in order to attract pollinators and unsurprisingly, the main natural pollinator of the bird of paradise is an avian species; the sunbird.

Once the birds are lured to the plant, they want to dip their beaks in to get to the nectar.  However, to do this, they have to reach in at just the right angle which also means they get covered in pollen.

Dead Horse Arum Lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus)

Dead Horse Arum Lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus) has a scent of rotting meat that encourages flies to come to it and assists with pollination
Arunsbhat / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The dead horse arum lily is native to very specific parts of Europe; the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, and Corsica. This plant has one of the worst aromas of any flowering species but it’s for good reason.

The scent of rotting meat encourages flies to come to the dead horse arum lily for pollination. But amazingly, there is one more creature that is hugely attracted to the pungent scent, and that’s the Lilford’s wall lizard. This animal feeds on the nectar and the pollen of the lily and aids in pollination.

In order to fully emit their scent, dead horse arum lilies even produce heat which sends the smell further, attracting the largest number of pollinators.

Cuckoo-Pint (Arum maculatum)

Cuckoo-Pint (Arum maculatum)

The cuckoo point is one of the most common spring flowering plants in the United Kingdom, but it can also be found across Europe and parts of Northern Africa. It’s most commonly found growing in hedgerows and can reach heights of around 9.8-inches (25 cm).

But this is a very deceptive plant, and uses a couple of methods to lure in unsuspecting pollinators. First of all, it produces a potent scent that’s not all that dissimilar to pee which is attractive to certain insects.

As well as this, the cuckoo pint heats up by around 15-degrees and draws in midges. When they come to the plant, they are trapped beneath small hairs and have access to nectar. While inside the trap, the nectar causes the midges to become sticky, and the pollen inside will adhere to them. After some time, the little hairs wither away, and the midges are released to go and pollinate another cuckoo pint.

Philodendron selloum

Philodendron selloum ave a large flowering stalk which extends and heats up during the blooming period

Also known as the tea philodendron, this plant can be grown as a house plant, but it is also found growing in the wild in moist soil in sunny spots, particularly in South America.

These plants have a large flowering stalk which extends and heats up during the blooming period. But this is something of a special event since it only happens for a maximum of two nights each year! When it does, the heat it produces attracts a certain species of beetle which will come into the flower to mate. As the beetles go about their business in the flower, they are covered in pollen so that, when they fly off, they’re able to pollinate other philodendron selloum.

Southwestern Pipevine (Aristolochia watsonii)

Southwestern Pipevine (Aristolochia watsonii) use the scent of dung to attract insects for pollination
Saguaro National Park / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The southwestern pipevine is a type of rambling vine that enjoys growing in evergreen areas but does not tolerate frost. The vines can get quite long, and during spring and summer will begin to flower. These vines can be found across southern parts of North America, up to California and in Mexico.

Southwestern pipevines use the scent of dung to attract insects for pollination. However, what’s unique about this plant is that there is no reward for the insects who are simply trapped inside the flower overnight before being released, covered in pollen, the following morning.

Giant Water Lily (Victoria amazonica)

Giant Water Lily (Victoria amazonica) rely on beetles for pollination and use an attractive pineapple-like scent to draw them in

The giant water lily can grow pads up to eight feet across, but the stems can get as long as 26-feet. It produces white and purplish-red colored flowers. Amazingly, this plant only flowers for two days each year, with the first flowers blooming at night and being white while the second flowers have a brighter appearance.

These plants rely on beetles for pollination and use an attractive pineapple-like scent to draw them in. The flowers are able to produce heat using a process known as thermogenesis. This further attracts the beetles who then land on the flowers and become stuck. When morning comes, the flower closes around the beetle and creates new pollen, which covers the trapped insect. 

On the second night of flowering, the blooms open up and release the beetles with a fresh batch of pollen.

Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum)

Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) has a cluster of rancid smelling blooms

The common name for the titan arum is the corpse flower largely due to its cluster of rancid smelling blooms. This plant was discovered in the 1800s in Sumatra, but despite efforts to cultivate it elsewhere, it has proven to be extremely difficult.

The corpse flower can grow up to 118-inches (3-meters) tall and may only produce blooms every four to ten years! The flower’s vile smell is boosted using thermogenesis which attracts bugs from as far as half a mile away.

Umbrella/Parachute Plant (Ceropegia sandersonii)

Umbrella/Parachute Plant (Ceropegia sandersonii) uses a trap which has small downward pointing hairs so that any flies that fall in, cannot fly back out

The parachute plant is native to Mozambique, Swaziland, and South Africa and is sometimes called the umbrella plant or the fountain flower. These plants are a variety of dogbane and are often grown as a houseplant.

But how does the umbrella plant lure pollinators? It uses a trap which has small downward pointing hairs so that any flies that fall in, cannot fly back out. They are only released once the flower dies and the hairs wilt. During its time inside the flower, the insect becomes covered in pollen ready to move onto the next parachute plant to pollinate it.

Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)

Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) relies on insect pollination and the cactus attracts visitors through the power of smell

The saguaro cactus grows in northern parts of Mexico as well as in the southern United States. While slow growing, these cacti can reach heights of 50-feet once mature but only flower for a single 24-hour period each spring.

During the day, this desert plant is pollinated by bees while the cover of darkness sees bats being attracted to the cream-colored flowers. While they may only bloom for a short period, during that time, an individual saguaro cactus could produce just shy of 300 flowers!

During the day, the saguaro cactus is pollinated by bees while the cover of darkness sees bats being attracted to the cream-colored flowers.

Since the pollen of these flowers is so heavy, it relies on insect pollination and the cactus attracts visitors through the power of smell. The nectar of the saguaro cactus flowers is similar to ripened melon so draws in a wide range of pollinators including bees, bats, birds, and insects.

Cast-Iron/Bar-Room Plant (Aspidistra elatior)

Cast-Iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) rely on small insects like fungus gnats for pollination, they use scent as a form of deception

The cast iron plant is native to Taiwan and Japan and is often grown as a houseplant due to how resilient it is and how well it tolerates neglect. It can grow up to 23.6-inches (60 cm) tall and features large leaves and cream-colored flowers.

Since cast iron plants rely on small insects like fungus gnats for pollination, they use scent as a form of deception. The male part of the plant is located beneath the female part so flies need to be small enough to access this.

Does Flower Shape & Color Affect Pollination?

Does flower shape & color affect pollination?

Insects do not see colors in the same way that we do, so this does affect how attracted they are to certain flowers. For example, bees see colors within the yellow and blue spectrum far more clearly, so they’ll naturally be more attracted to these colors. While flowers that are red in color will deter bees.

On the other hand, a lot of birds have violet sensitive vision meaning they can only see blue, green and red, so they’ll be attracted to plants in that color. Various plants have adapted certain colors in order to attract the animals that pollinate them.

In terms of shape, flowers that are more symmetrical seem to attract things like bees, hummingbirds, and certain types of insects as these are the animals that will be able to access the blooms. An example of this would be a tubular-shaped flower that would require a long mouthpart such as those of moths and butterflies.

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