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U.S. Forest Service

Pollinator Syndromes

Plants and pollinators have co-evolved physical characteristics that make them more likely to interact successfully. The plants benefit from attracting a particular type of pollinator to its flower, ensuring that its pollen will be carried to another flower of the same species and hopefully resulting in successful reproduction.

The pollinator benefits from its adaptation to a particular flower type by ensuring that it will be able to find and access important food resources - nectar and pollen. Such relationships are considered mutualistic.

Animals, wind, and water can all be vectors for pollen. The flower type, shape, color, odor, nectar, and structure vary by the type of pollinator that visits them. Such characteristics are considered pollination syndromes and can be used to predict the type of pollinator that will aid the flower in successful reproduction.

Butterfly on a flower. Photo by T. Barnes, University of Kentucky.

Use the pollinator syndrome table to help you identify the potential pollinators you may associate with different flower types.

Pollinator Syndrome Traits
Trait Bats Bees Beetles Birds
Color Dull white, green or purple Bright white, yellow, blue, or UV Dull white or green Scarlet, orange, red or white
Nectar Guides Absent Present Absent Absent
Odor Strong musty; emitted at night Fresh, mild, pleasant None to strongly fruity or fetid None
Nectar Abundant; somewhat hidden Usually present Sometimes present; not hidden Ample; deeply hidden
Pollen Ample Limited; often sticky and scented Ample Modest
Flower Shape Regular; bowl shaped – closed during day Shallow; have landing platform; tubular, c Large bowl-like, Magnolia Large funnel like; cups, strong perch support
Pollinator Syndrome Traits
Trait Butterflies Flies Moths Wind
Color Bright, including red and purple Pale and dull to dark brown or purple; flecked with translucent patches Pale and dull red, purple, pink or white Dull green, brown, or colorless; petals absent or reduced
Nectar Guides Present Absent Absent Absent
Odor Faint but fresh Putrid Strong sweet; emitted at night None
Nectar Ample; deeply hidden Usually absent Ample; deeply hidden None
Pollen Limited Modest in amount Limited Abundant; small, smooth, and not sticky
Flower Shape Narrow tube with spur; wide landing pad Shallow; funnel like or complex and trap-like Regular; tubular without a lip Regular: small and stigmas exerted

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