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Drinking Nectar

In this activity, students compare the unique tools that pollinators have to reach the nectar inside of flowers. Students learn how the tool used to gather nectar determines what flower each pollinator will be attracted to.

Flowers use colours, smell, designs, warmth, and size to attract pollinators. Pollinators are attracted to flowers because of the rewards hidden deep inside the flower— the nectar. If a flower is the right size for a pollinator, then the pollinator can drink the nectar, and in doing so will pick up pollen on their body. Then, as they visit other flowers for more nectar, they will spread the pollen from one plant to another.

Both the pollinator and the plant benefit from the pollination interaction. 

With this in mind, all flowers are NOT meant to be pollinated by every pollinator, and pollinators are NOT designed to be able to pollinate every flower. What determines a good match has a lot to do with shape and size of the flower and the shape and size of the pollinator’s body parts.

For example:

Hummingbirds use their tongues, which stretch to 2/3 of the length of their body, to reach the nectar deep inside trumpet shaped flowers. When they pull their tongue in, it wraps around their brain.

Bees have an even longer tongue compared to their body length—anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 of their body length. Bees, however, are small creatures and prefer flowers more suited to their varying sizes.

Butterflies and moths use a tongue-like structure called a proboscis, 1.5 times their body length, to reach nectar inside flowers. This proboscis is not used for tasting though. Instead, butterflies use their feet to taste nectar! Butterflies are not the precision flyers that hummingbirds and bees are, they prefer larger, open flowers, which they can land on to feed.

Bats have adapted to feed on pollen of night blooming plants, and ones that have large enough flowers for their whole face to enter.

Objectives

  • Describe the importance of biodiversity for both pollinators and plants.

  • List a few characteristics of common pollinators (birds, bees, bats, butterflies).

Materials

  • Per Student:
    string or ribbon
    scissors

Key Questions

  • What is the benefit of having a long versus short proboscis or tongue?
  • Which method do you think works the best for getting nectar?
  • Can a pollinator reach all types of flowers or only certain flowers?
  • How are pollinators suited to the flowers they pollinate?

What To Do

Demonstration

  1. To-scale hummingbird tongue
  • Measure a piece of string to 2/3 of a student’s body length.
  1. To-scale butterfly proboscis
  • Measure a piece of string to 1.5 times of a student’s body length.
  1. To-scale bee tongue
  • Measure a piece of string to 3/4 times of a student’s body length.

4. To-scale bat tongue – it comes pre-installed in each student- but will it work for the same flowers?

Optional

  • Using these strings as reference, imagine what the flower would look like and imagine what it would be like to drink nectar from using each of these strings.

Extensions

  • How are flowers shaped to make it easy for pollen to get on the pollinator? Use different shaped containers and corresponding matching straw shapes to show the connection between flower shape and pollinator tongue shape.