Staff Pollinator Picks #11 and 12

Everybody probably has a favorite insect. We thought it would be fun to ask our pollinator staff to suggest their favorite pollinator. With so many pollinators to choose from, it gives a glimpse into the diversity that’s out there waiting to be watched and enjoyed. Here are staff pollinator favorites #11 and 12!

Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)

Eric Lee-Mäder, Pollinator Conservation Program Co-Director


Choosing a “favorite” pollinator feels like an impossible task. Having previously worked in the Midwest as a crop scout for large-scale native wildflower and grass seed production gave me exposure to some amazing years of up-close pollinator diversity.

Thinking back to that time, the sunflower leafcutter bee (Megachile pugnata), a huge prairie species, was a tempting choice for me after managing a small population of them in wood blocks for Echinacea pollination. Dieunomia heteropoda, the largest sweat bee in the eastern U.S., was a close second. This native sunflower specialist has fantastically black wings, interesting curved antennae, and giant hooked legs used to grasp each other when mating. Discovering them pollinating compass plant (Silphium lanciniatum) made an impression because they looked like no other bee I’d ever seen.

Ultimately however, my nomination rests with a much more common, but I think, underappreciated species. The painted lady butterfly may not be an important crop pollinator, but their extensive travels and abundance potentially makes them important for the long-distance gene transfer between distant plant populations, and their sheer numbers most certainly make them an important food source for other wildlife. Found on every continent except Antarctica, the painted lady only overwinters in warm climates. Then, as their populations increase in time for spring, they explode northward in vast numbers (the scientific term for this mass emigration is an “irruption”). In North America they travel northward almost to the Arctic Circle. In Europe, the migration does reach the Arctic Circle, having begun in North Africa — and reaches as far west as Iceland.

In record years painted lady numbers have been high enough to close highways, and as their host plants (native thistles) are potentially in decline, these showy, colorful butterflies have quickly adapted to feeding on invasive nonnative thistles and weedy plants unrelated to thistle entirely. Scientists even suspect that painted lady butterflies will be one of the few species that will cope well with climate change and potentially increase in numbers.

So often in conservation we focus on the rare species that are facing tough odds. The painted lady however gives me hope in the resiliency of nature and in the potential for beauty to survive in the face of environmental disruption.

(Photo: Tero Laakso/; used under Creative Commons license.)

Green sweat bee (Agapostemon virescens))

Thelma Heidel-Baker, IPM specialist

agapostemonMy journey with solitary bees only started in the past several years. One of my first experiences was observing the beautiful sweat bees of the family Halictidae. Not only are many of these species a vibrant green color, but they often have a beautiful metallic sheen, sometimes with hints of gold. If I had to choose just one favorite, I would say the sweat bee Agapostemon virescens. In the soybean fields of Iowa where I was studying bee diversity in agricultural crops, this particular bee was one of the most prolific pollinator species I observed. What I didn’t know then but know now is that this is a ground-nesting bee, and the females make their nests deep underground, provisioning the eggs laid there with collected pollen and nectar from flowers. The males and females of this bee emerge at different times during the summer. I also think this bee has one of the coolest names ever: Agapostemon! (Say that three times fast!)