Who Follows the Nectar Trail?
Migratory Pollinators


When you leave on a long car trip, you like to be sure there will be food along the way. Will restaurants will be open when you' re hungry?

You might say that migratory species need to count on the same thing. Scientists have long thought that some of the migratory species we study in Journey North — such as monarch butterflies, rufous hummingbirds, and lesser long-nosed bats — time their migration to match the flowering and fruiting of various food plants. In other words, they follow "flower highways" that serve as nectar trails to fuel their flights. In the process of moving from one plant to another, these flying critters are not only feeding; they are also pollinating.

Three Species, Three Pathways
This map shows three of the migratory pollinator species that you can meet in Journey North reports. Their migratory "highways" are lined with flowering plants that bloom in a sequence each spring. The blossoms provide crucial refueling stopovers during the winged pollinators' long migrations.

Nectar Corridors
credit M. Hosier

  • Lesser long-nosed bats log as many as 3,200 miles on their round-trip journey each year. Each spring pregnant bats of this endangered species fly up to 100 miles a night, following the wave of cactus blooms from south-central Mexico to Arizona, New Mexico, and Baja California Mexico. They head back south after bearing their young, fueled along the way by flowering agave plants.
  • Rufous hummingbirds migrate each fall to southern Mexico, feeding off flowering plants on their way. In the spring they again follow the nectar trail as they return to northern California, Oregon, Washington and the Rocky Mountains up through British Columbia and well into southern Alaska.
  • Millions of monarch butterflies from all over North America fly south every year in late summer and early fall to California, Florida, and a mountainous area in central Mexico. They fuel their migration on the sugars (carbohydrates) found in the nectar of flowering plants.

These Pollinators are Important to YOU!
It's not just the migratory species that benefit from the nectar trails. We ALL do! Many of our favorite fruits would never grow without help from their pollinators. Honeybees, other wild bee species, and the other migratory animals that transfer pollen between flowers, contribute more than $10 billion a year to fruit and seed production on North American farms. These native pollinators also pollinate rare and endangered plant species.

The United States and Mexico have signed International conservation treaties to protect the migratory pollinators. But the agreements have not yet kept migratory pollinator populations from declining. For example, the number of rufous hummingbirds has been falling in the Intermountain West at a rate of 5 percent a year.

You Can Help

  • Learn about The Migratory Pollinators Program. Run by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, this program aims to monitor the "nectar corridor" between Mexico and the southwestern United States. Volunteers help researchers monitor and protect migratory stopovers for bats, doves, hummingbirds, and monarchs at 12 sites and 5 states, and to report on the arrival and departure times of these pollinators at dozens of other sites. The information is mapped and compared against changing land-use trends to see where the migrants might be most vulnerable and in need of further protection. Then communities become involved. Volunteers help monitor the migrants and also take care of their habitat.
  • Visit the Web site of Bat Conservation International to learn how to help bats. Bats have a tough time because many people wrongly fear them. We all need to spread the word about the importance of bats and the ways they help us. We need to help raise the level of respect and caring for bats.

Try This! Journaling Questions
  1. Why is it important to protect migratory pollinators and not take them for granted? Has your attitude about bats, bees, or any of the other pollinators changed as a result of learning more about them?
  2. What might be some of threats to these important species? (Think about attitudes as well as the growing human population and how we meet its growing needs.)