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Birds, Bats, and Moths: A Spotlight on Orange County's Pollinating Species

Step outside and enjoy the fresh air… or don’t if you suffer from seasonal allergies. While pollen is one of the most common allergens, it is a significant means of reproduction for many flowering plants. Pollination is the spread of pollen from the male anther of one plant to the female stigma of another plant to allow for fertilization. This process is done by a wide variety of organisms, with honey bees being the most well-known. We will be exploring three pollinating organisms that reside here in Orange County: the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat, Anna’s Hummingbird, and the White-lined Sphinx moth.

The Mexican-Free Tailed bat, or Tadarida brasiliensis, is a medium-sized brown bat that feeds primarily on beetles, moths, June bugs, and just about any other flying insect it can catch. It can eat up to two-thirds of its entire weight in insects in one night! This makes it an important keystone species, meaning its presence in the ecosystem is crucial for keeping other populations of organisms in check. These hungry predators are also one of the fastest mammals on Earth, reaching speeds of up to 99 miles per hour in flight! These quick animals are also one of the most important pollinators for crops like agave and saguaro cactus. Bats are mostly drawn to large, pale-colored flowers with a musty smell. They pollinate flowers that other daytime pollinators might miss, like those that open at night. Pollination that is facilitated by bats is even given a special name called chiropterophily.

The Mexican Free-Tailed Bat gets its name from its unique tail that can take up almost half of the bat’s total body length and is not attached to its uropatagium. Photo by Bat Conservation International.

Up next is Anna’s Hummingbird, also known as Calypte anna. This medium-sized hummingbird is mostly green and gray, with male birds having a striking, iridescent pink head and throat called a gorget. As they fly in any direction, their iridescent feathers can shift from shades of pink, green, yellow, and purple. These birds love to sip the nectar from brightly colored, tubular flowers such as those on the California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica), red hot poker (Tritoma), and the desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). They can flap their wings about 40-50 times per second and can reach speeds of up to 61 miles per hour! They are significant pollinators of the chaparral flora of our coast here in California, where plants have evolved their winter growth and flowering to the feeding patterns of these birds.

Pictured is an Anna’s Hummingbird showing off its flashy, iridescent feathers as it approaches one of its favorite flowers: the California Fuchsia. Photo by Jerome Gaw.

Lastly, the White-lined Sphinx moth, also known as Hyles lineata or hummingbird moth, is a significant pollinator found from the southern regions of Canada, all across the US and Mexico, and down to Central America. Its caterpillars are able to feed on the leaves of a wide variety of plants which allows it to inhabit such an extensive range of habitats. It has a rather plump body with a wingspan of about 2.5 to 3.5 inches. With such a large body compared to the size of its wings, it must beat its wings quickly to stay aloft and hover over flowers. It uses its long, tube-like tongue called a proboscis to sip nectar from flowers just like a butterfly would, except they are primarily nocturnal fliers. When flying in the day, they are primarily drawn to brightly colored flowers as seen in the penstemon (Penstemon campanulatus) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). At night, it prefers white flowers that contrast against the dark surroundings such as those seen on the jimsonweed plant (Datura stramonium). As it sips nectar from flowers, it spreads pollen around which contributes to the area’s biodiversity.

A White-lined Sphinx moth uses its proboscis to sip nectar and spread pollen. The moth gets its name from the white stripe across each wing. Photo by Ron Dudley.

Orange County hosts a wide range of pollinators that are constantly threatened by human activities. These include pesticides, loss of habitat, and nonnative species that bring parasites and disease. The good news is that there are ways you can help! A great way to help is by reducing your pesticide use as much as possible and avoid spraying flowers directly. You can also choose to plant native plants in your garden to support the pollination of these species. Lastly, you can volunteer with local organizations such as OC Habitats, OC Coastkeepers, California Native Plant Society, Newport Bay Conservancy, Irvine Ranch Conservancy, and the Laguna Canyon Foundation to support the health of our local ecosystems that are home to these pollinators.

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