Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Flies and flowers: taxonomic diversity of anthophiles and pollinators

  • B.M.H. Larson (a1), P.G. Kevan (a2) and D.W. Inouye (a3)

The Diptera are the second most important order among flower-visiting (anthophilous) and flower-pollinating insects worldwide. Their taxonomic diversity ranges from Nematocera to Brachycera, including most families within the suborders. Especially important are Syrphidae, Bombyliidae, and Muscoidea. Other families, especially of small flies, are less appreciated and often overlooked for their associations with flowers. We have compiled records of their flower visitations to show that they may be more prevalent than usually thought. Our knowledge of anthophilous Diptera needs to be enhanced by future research concerning (i) the significance of nocturnal Nematocera and acalypterate muscoids as pollinators, (ii) the extent to which the relatively ineffective pollen-carrying ability of some taxa can be compensated by the abundance of individuals, and (iii) the role of Diptera as pollinators of the first flowering plants (Angiospermae) by using phylogenetic and palaeontological evidence. Specializations in floral relationships involve the morphology of Diptera, especially of their mouthparts, nutritional requirements, and behaviour, as well as concomitant floral attributes. The South African flora has the most highly specialized relations with dipterous pollinators, but in arctic and alpine generalist fly–flower relations are important in pollination and fly nutrition.


Les diptères occupent le second rang au monde parmi les ordres d’insectes qui visitent les fleurs (anthophiles) et qui assurent la pollinisation. Leur diversité taxonomique va des nématocères aux brachycères et inclut presque toutes les familles de ces sous-ordres, en particulier les Syrphidae, les Bombyliidae et les Muscoidea qui occupent une place prépondérante. Les associations des autres familles avec les fleurs, particulièrement les familles de mouches de petite taille, passent souvent inaperçues. Nous avons compilé des données sur leurs visites aux fleurs dans le but de démontrer qu’elles sont probablement plus importantes qu’on ne le croit. Nos connaissances des diptères anthophiles doivent être complétées par d’autres recherches (i) pour déterminer l’importance des nématocères nocturnes et des muscoïdes acalyptères comme pollinisateurs, (ii) pour évaluer jusqu’à quel point l’inefficacité relative de certains taxons comme transporteurs de pollen peut être compensée par l’abondance des individus et (iii) pour juger du rôle des diptères comme pollinisateurs des premières plantes à fleurs (Angiospermae) en utilisant des données phylogénétiques et paléontologiques. Les spécialisations de relations fleurs–insectes sont basées sur des particularités morphologiques des diptères, surtout de leurs pièces buccales, sur leurs besoins nutritifs et sur leur comportement, en même temps que sur les attributs correspondants des fleurs. La flore de l’Afrique du Sud est celle qui a les relations les plus spécialisées avec les diptères pollinisateurs. Cependant, dans les régions arctiques et alpines, des relations apparemment non spécialisées entre les mouches et les fleurs sont importantes pour la pollinisation des fleurs et l’alimentation des mouches.

[Traduit par la Rédaction]

Corresponding author
1 Author to whom all correspondence should be addressed (E-mail:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

J.D. Ackerman , M.R. Mesler 1979. Pollination biology of Listera cordata (Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany 66: 820–4

J.F. Addicott 1986. Variation in the costs and benefits of mutualism: the interaction between yuccas and yucca moths. Oecologia 70: 486–94

M.T.K. Arroyo , R. Primack , J. Armesto 1982. Community studies in pollination ecology in the high temperate Andes of central Chile. I. Pollination mechanisms and altitudinal variation. American Journal of Botany 69: 8297

S.C.H. Barrett , K. Helenurm 1987. The reproductive biology of boreal forest herbs. I. Breeding systems and pollination. Canadian Journal of Botany 65: 2036–46

R.S. Beaman , P.J. Decker , J.H. Beaman 1988. Pollination of Rafflesia (Rafflesiaceae). American Journal of Botany 75: 1148–62

A.J. Beattie 1971. Pollination mechanisms in Viola. New Phytologist 70: 343–60

A.J. Beattie 1976. Plant dispersion, pollination and gene flow in Viola. Oecologia 25: 291300

N.B.M. Brantjes 1981. Ant, bee and fly pollination in Epipactis palustris (L.) Crantz (Orchidaceae). Acta Botanica Neerlandica 30: 5968

N.B.M. Brantjes , JAAM Leemans . 1976. Silene otites (Caryophyllaceae) pollinated by nocturnal Lepidoptera and mosquitoes. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 25: 281–95

T.L. Bultman , J.F. White 1988. “Pollination” of a fungus by a fly. Oecologia 75: 317–9

S.G. Burgin , F.F. Hunter 1997 a. Nectar versus honeydew as sources of sugar for male and female black flies (Diptera: Simuliidae). Journal of Medical Entomology 34: 605–8

S.G. Burgin , F.F. Hunter 1997 c. Sugar meals used by female black flies (Diptera: Simuliidae): a four-habitat study. Canadian Journal of Zoology 75: 1066–72

R.W. Cruden 1972. Pollination biology of Nemophila menziesii (Hydrophyllaceae) with comments on the evolution of oligolectic bees. Evolution 26: 373–89

L. Currah , D.J. Ockendon 1983. Onion pollination by blowflies and honeybees in large cages. Annals of Applied Biology 103: 497506

L. Currah , D.J. Ockendon 1984. Pollination activity by blowflies and honeybees on onions in breeders' cages. Annals of Applied Biology 105: 167–76

S. D'Arcy-Burt , R.P. Blackshaw 1991. Bibionids (Diptera: Bibionidae) in agricultural land: a review of damage, benefits, natural enemies and control. Annals of Applied Biology 118: 695708

D.M. Davies , B.V. Petersen 1956. Observations on the mating, feeding, ovarian development, and oviposition of adult black flies (Simuliidae, Diptera). Canadian Journal of Zoology 34: 615–55

J.S. Dexter 1913. Mosquitoes pollinating orchids. Science (Washington, DC) 37: 867

M.A. Deyrup 1988. Pollen-feeding in Poecilognathus punctipennis (Diptera: Bombyliidae). Florida Entomologist 71: 597605

J.A. Downes 1955. The food habits and distribution of Atrichopogon pollinivorus sp. n. (Diptera: Ceratopogonidae). Transactions of the Royal Entomological Society of London 106: 439–53

J.A. Downes 1958. The feeding habits of biting flies and their significance in classification. Annual Review of Entomology 3: 249–66

E. Drabble , H. Drabble 1917. The syrphid visitors to certain flowers. New Phytologist 16: 105–9

E. Drabble , H. Drabble 1927. Some flowers and their dipteran visitors. New Phytologist 26: 115–23

A. Erhardt 1993. Pollination of the edelweiss, Leontopodium alpinum. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 111: 229–40

K. Faegri , L. van der Pijl 1979. The principles of pollination ecology. 3rd ed. Oxford: Pergamon Press

J.P. Feil 1992. Reproductive ecology of dioecious Siparuna (Monimiaceae) in Ecuador — a case of gall midge pollination. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 110: 171203

F.S. Gilbert 1981. Foraging ecology of hover flies (Diptera: Syrphidae): morphology of the mouthparts in relation to feeding on nectar and pollen in some common urban species. Ecological Entomologist 6: 245–62

F. Gilbert , M. Jervis 1998. Functional, evolutionary and ecological aspects of feeding-related mouthpart specializations in parasitoid flies. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 63: 495535

P. Goldblatt , J.C. Manning 1999. The long-proboscid fly pollination system in Gladiolus (Iridaceae). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 86: 758–74

P. Goldblatt , J.C. Manning 2000. The long-proboscid fly pollination system in southern Africa. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 87: 146–70

P. Goldblatt , P. Bernhardt , J.C. Manning 2000. Adaptive raiation of pollination mechanisms in Ixia (Iridaceae: Crocoidea). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 87: 564–77

P. Goldblatt , J.C. Manning , P. Bernhardt 2001. Radiation of pollination systems in Gladiolus (Iridaceae: Ixioideae) in southern Africa. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. In press

J.R. Gorham 1976. Orchid pollination by Aedes mosquitoes in Alaska. American Midland Naturalist 95: 208–10

D. Grimaldi 1988. Bee flies and bluets: Bombylius (Diptera: Bombyliidae) flower-constant on the distylous species, Hedyotis caerulea (Rubiaceae), and the manner of foraging. Journal of Natural History 22: 110

D. Grimaldi 1999. The co-radiations of pollinating insects and angiosperms in Cretaceous. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 86: 373406

P.R. Grimstad , G.R. DeFoliart 1974. Nectar sources of Wisconsin mosquitoes. Journal of Medical Entomology 11: 331–41

D.W. Hall , B.V. Brown 1993. Pollination of Aristolochia littoralis (Aristolochiales: Aristolochiaceae) by males of Megaselia spp. (Diptera: Phoridae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 86: 609–13

J.R. Haslett 1989. Interpreting patterns of resource utilization: randomness and selectivity in pollen feeding by adult hover flies. Oecologia 78: 433–42

T.A. Heard , V. Vithanage , E.K. Chacko 1990. Pollination biology of cashew in the Northern Territory of Australia. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 41: 1101–14

A. Henderson 1986. A review of pollination studies in the Palmae. Botanical Review 52: 221–59

B. Hocking 1968. Insect–flower associations in the High Arctic with special reference to nectar. Oikos 19: 359–88

B. Hocking , C.D. Sharplin 1965. Flower basking by arctic insects. Nature (London) 206: 215

B.A. Holloway 1976. Pollen-feeding in hover-flies (Diptera: Syrphidae). New Zealand Journal of Zoology 3: 339–50

A.S. Hunter 1979. New anthophilic Drosophila of Columbia. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 72: 372–83

F.F. Hunter , S.G. Burgin , A. Woodhouse 2000. Shattering the folklore: blackflies do not pollinate sweet lowbush blueberry. Canadian Journal of Zoology 78: 2051–4

Y. Ivri , A. Dafni 1977. The pollination ecology of Epipactis consimilis Don (Orchidaceae) in Israel. New Phytologist 79: 173–7

D.H. Janzen 1979. How to be a fig. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 10: 1351

S.D. Johnson , K.E. Steiner 1995. Long-proboscid fly pollination of two orchids in the Cape Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. Plant Systematics and Evolution 195: 169–75

S.D. Johnson , K.E. Steiner 1997. Long-tongued fly pollination and evolution of floral spur length in the Disa draconis complex (Orchidaceae). Evolution 51: 4553

J. Karczewski 1967. The observations on flower-visiting species of Tachinidae and Calliphoridae (Diptera). Fragmenta Faunistica (Warsaw) 13: 407 [Polish with English summary]

M. Kato , T. Inoue , T. Nagamitsu 1995. Pollination biology of Gnetum (Gnetaceae) in a lowland mixed dipterocarp forest in Sarawak. American Journal of Botany 82: 862–8

C.A. Kearns 1992. Anthophilous fly distribution across an elevation gradient. American Midland Naturalist 127: 172–82

D.A. Kendall , M.E. Solomon 1973. Quantity of pollen on the bodies of insects visiting apple blossom. Journal of Applied Ecology 10: 627–34

P.G. Kevan 1972. Insect pollination of High Arctic flowers. Journal of Ecology 60: 831–47

P.G. Kevan 1990. Sexual differences in temperatures of blossoms on a dioecious plant, Salix arctica: significance for life in the Arctic. Arctic and Alpine Research 22: 283–9

P.G. Kevan , H.G. Baker 1983. Insects as flower visitors and pollinators. Annual Review of Entomology 28: 407–53

P.G. Kevan , E.A. Tikhmenev , M. Usui 1993. Insects and plants in the pollination ecology of the boreal zone. Ecological Research 8: 247–67

K.J. Kingsley 1996. Behaviour of the Delhi Sands flower-lving fly (Diptera: Mydidae), a little-known endangered species. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 89: 883–91

A. Koponen 1990. Entomophily in the Splachnaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 104: 115–27

G. Kudo 1993. Relationship between flowering time and fruit set of the entomophilous alpine shrub, Rhododendron aureum (Ericaceae), inhabiting snow patches. American Journal of Botany 80: 1300–4

C.C. Labandeira 1997. Insect mouthparts: ascertaining the paleobiology of insect feeding strategies. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 28: 153–93

C.C. Labandeira 1998 a. How old is the flower and the fly? Science (Washington, DC) 280: 57–9

M.A. Lachance , W.T. Starmer , C.A. Rosa , J.M. Bowles , J.S.F. Barker , D.H. Janzen 2001. Biogeography of the yeasts of ephemeral flowers and their insects. FEMS Yeast Research 1. In press

S.B. Lall , D.M. Davies 1971. An intergeneric comparison of cephalic structure in tabanids (Diptera) in relation to feeding habits. Journal of Medical Entomology 8: 700–6

H. Leereveld 1984. Anthecological relations between reputedly anemophilous flowers and syrphid flies. VI. Aspects of the anthecology of Cyperaceae and Sparganium erectum L. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 33: 475–82

H. Leereveld , A.D.J. Meeuse , P. Stelleman 1976. Anthecological relations between reputedly anemophilous flowers and syrphid flies. II. Plantago media L. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 25: 205–11

H. Leereveld , A.D.J. Meeuse , P. Stelleman 1981. Anthecological relations between reputedly anemophilous flowers and syrphid flies. IV. A note on the anthecology of Scirpus maritimus L. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 30: 465–73

C.M. Levesque , J.F. Burger 1982. Insects (Diptera, Hymenoptera) associated with Minuartia groenlandica (Caryophyllaceae) on Mount Washington, New Hampshire, U.S.A., and their possible role as pollinators. Arctic and Alpine Research 14: 117–24

A.H. Lindsey 1984. Reproductive biology of Apiaceae. I. Floral visitors to Thaspium and Zizia and their importance in pollination. American Journal of Botany 71: 375–87

D.H. Lorence 1985. A monograph of the Monimiaceae (Laurales) in the Malagasy region (southwest Indian Ocean). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 72: 1165

L.A. Magnarelli 1978. Nectar-feeding by female mosquitoes and its relation to follicular development and parity. Journal of Medical Entomology 14: 527–30

L.A. Magnarelli 1979. Diurnal nectar-feeding of Aedes cantator and Aedes sollicitans (Diptera: Culicidae). Environmental Entomology 8: 949–55

L.A. Magnarelli 1983. Nectar sugars and caloric reserves in natural populations of Aedes canadensis and Aedes stimulans (Diptera: Culicidae). Environmental Entomology 12: 1482–6

L.A. Magnarelli . J.F. Anderson , J.H. Thorne 1979. Diurnal nectar-feeding of salt marsh Tabanidae (Diptera). Environmental Entomology 8: 544–8

J.C. Manning , P. Goldblatt 1996. The Prosoeca peringueyi (Diptera: Nemestrinidae) pollination guild in southern Africa: long-tongued flies and their tubular flowers. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 83: 6786

J.A. Martinez-Ibarra , M.H. Rodriguez , J.I. Arrrendono-Jiminez , B. Yuval 1997. Influence of plant abundance on nectar feeding by Aedes aegypti (Diptera: Culicidae) in southern Mexico. Journal of Medical Entomology 34: 589–93

M.R. Mesler , J.D. Ackerman , K.L. Lu 1980. The effectiveness of fungus gnats as pollinators. American Journal of Botany 67: 564–7

A.F. Motten 1986. Pollination ecology of the spring wildflower community of a temperate deciduous forest. Ecological Monographs 56: 2142

A.F. Motten , D.R. Campbell , D.E. Alexander , H.L. Miller 1981. Pollination effectiveness of specialist and generalist visitors to a North Carolina population of Claytonia virginica. Ecology 62: 1278–87

L.A. Nilsson , L. Jonsson , L. Rason , E. Randrianjohany 1985. Pollination of Plectranthus vestitus (Lamiaceae) by trap-lining hovering bees in Madagascar. Plant Systematics and Evolution 150: 223–36

H. Oldroyd 1964. The natural history of flies. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

J.M. Patt , M.W. Merchant , D.R.E. Williams , B.J.D. Meeuse 1989. Pollination biology of Platanthera stricta (Orchidaceae) in Olympic National Park, Washington. American Journal of Botany 76: 1097–106

J.M. Patt , J.C. French , C. Schal , J. Lech , T.G. Hartman 1995. The pollination biology of tuckahoe, Peltandra virginica (Araceae). American Journal of Botany 82: 1230–40

O. Pellmyr 1984. The pollination ecology of Actaea spicata (Ranunculaceae). Nordic Journal of Botany 4: 443–56

O. Pellmyr 1989. The cost of mutualism: interactions between Trollius europaeus and its pollinating parasites. Oecologia 78: 53–9

O. Pellmyr 1992. The phylogeny of a mutualism: evolution and coadaptation between Trollius and its seed-parasitic pollinators. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 47: 337–65

A.C. Pont 1993. Observations on anthophilous Muscidae and other Diptera (Insecta) in Abisko National Park, Sweden. Journal of Natural History 27: 631–43

R.B. Primack 1983. Insect pollination in the New Zealand mountain flora. New Zealand Journal of Botany 21: 317–33

R.J. Reader 1977. Bog ericad flowers: self-compatibility and relative attractiveness to bees. Canadian Journal of Botany 55: 2279–87

D. Ren 1998. Flower-associated Brachycera flies as fossil evidence for Jurassic angiosperm origins. Science (Washington, DC) 280: 85–8

C. Robertson 1924. Flower visits of insects II. Psyche 31: 93111

C. Robertson 1928. Flowers and Insects. XXV. Ecology 9: 505–26

B.A. Roy 1994. The effects of pathogen-induced pseudoflowers and buttercups on each other's insect visitation. Ecology 75: 352–8

D.W. Schemske , M.F. Willson , M.N. Melampy , L.J. Miller , L. Verner , K.M. Schemske , L.B. Best 1978. Flowering ecology of some spring woodland herbs. Ecology 59: 351–66

F. Schneider 1969. Bionomics and physiology of aphidophagous Syrphidae. Annual Review of Entomology 14: 103–24

T.R. Soderstrom , C.E. Calderon 1971. Insect pollination in tropical rain forest grasses. Biotropica 3: 116

P. Stelleman 1984. Reflections on the transition from wind pollination to ambophily. Acta Botanica Neerlandica 33: 497508

M.K. Stowe 1988. Chemical mimicry. pp 513–80 inK. Spencer (Ed), Chemical mediation of coevolution. London: Academic Press

R.M. Straw 1963. Bee-fly pollination of Penstemon ambiguus. Ecology 44: 818–9

T. Sugawara 1988. Floral biology of Heterotropa tamaensis (Aristolochiaceae) in Japan. Plant Species Biology 3: 712

L.B. Thien 1969 a. Mosquito pollination of Habenaria obtusata (Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany 56: 232–7

L.B. Thien 1980. Patterns of pollination in the primitive Angiosperms. Biotropica 12: 113

L.B. Thien , F. Utech 1970. The mode of pollination in Habenaria obtusata (Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany 57: 1031–5

O. Totland 1993. Pollination in alpine Norway: flowering phenology, insect visitors, and visitation rates in two plant communities. Canadian Journal of Botany 71: 1072–9

H.V. Weemns Jr. 1953. Notes on collecting syrphid flies (Diptera: Syrphidae). Florida Entomologist 36: 91–8

B.H. Wilson , M. Lieux 1972. Pollen grains in the guts of field collected tabanids in Louisiana. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 65: 1264–6

H. Wolda , C.W. Sabrosky 1986. Insect visitors to two forms of Aristolochia pilosa in Las Cumbres, Panama. Biotropica 18: 295–9

M. Yafuso 1993. Thermogenesis of Alocasia odora (Araceae) and the role of Colocasiomyia flies (Diptera: Drosophilidae) as cross-pollinators. Environmental Entomology 22: 601–6

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Canadian Entomologist
  • ISSN: 0008-347X
  • EISSN: 1918-3240
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-entomologist
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score