Collage of colorful flowers

Pollinator Color Preferences

The process of flower pollination begins when an insect, bird or bat in search for food settles on a flower. It sips nectar from it while pollen sticks to its body. As it flies off in search for more food, it settles on a new flower, and in the process, pollen from the last flower rubs off onto the new one. With each landing on a flower, pollination occurs.

  Flower Color Significance

Plants have a number of different means to attract pollinators, with bright, showy colors being one of the most common ways to maximize their visual effect. Flowers, in essence, are attention getters. They are like advertisement signs for pollinators. In order for plants to entice pollinators, they must first offer their favorite foods: nectar and protein. Since most pollinators fly, the colors of a flower must attract them, therefore, the brighter the flowers, the more likely it will be visited.

  Flower Color Evolution

There is an almost bewildering diversity of flower colors and color patterns in flowering plants with colors spanning the entire color spectrum of human and pollinator vision. The diversity of flower colors is largely shaped by the interactions with pollinating animals through the process of natural selection.

When angiosperms (flowering plants with seeds developed in the plant ovary) branched off from gymnosperms (seeds produced in unisexual cones) on the evolutionary tree, around 200 to 240 million years ago, flower color was co-opted as a way to attract insect pollinators. Subsequently, anthocyanins in the plants began producing purple and blue colors in addition to red. Other pigments like carotenoids also arose.

  Read more: Flower Color: How It Works
  Try the quiz: Flower Color Preference Quiz

  Pollinator Preferences

  Bees

Bees are perhaps the most important pollinator of many garden plants and most commercial fruit trees. Since bees cannot see the color red, bee-pollinated flowers usually have shades of blue and yellow. They visit flowers that are open during the day, are brightly colored, have a strong aroma or scent, and have a tubular shape, typically with the presence of a nectar guide.

A nectar guide includes regions on the flower petals that are visible only to bees, and not to humans. It helps to guide bees to the center of the flower, thus making the pollination process more efficient.

Blue    Purple    Yellow   

  Flies

Flies are attracted to flowers that have a decaying smell or an odor of rotting flesh. These flowers, which produce nectar, usually have dull colors, such as brown or purple.

Brown   

  Butterflies

Butterflies, such as the monarch, pollinate many garden flowers and wildflowers, which usually occur in clusters. These flowers are brightly colored, have a strong fragrance, are open during the day, and have nectar guides to make access to nectar easier. As a general rule, flowers that are white, pink, purple, red, yellow and orange attract the most butterflies.

White    Pink    Orange    Blue    Purple    Yellow   

  Moths

Moths pollinate flowers during the late afternoon and night. The flowers pollinated by moths are pale or white and are flat, enabling the moths to land. The shape of the flower and moth have adapted in such a way as to allow successful pollination.

White   

  Bats

Bats are attracted to flowers that are usually large and white or pale-colored. Thus, they can be distinguished from the dark surroundings at night. The flowers have a strong, fruity, or musky fragrance and produce large amounts of nectar. They are naturally large and wide-mouthed to accommodate the head of the bat.

White   

  Hummingbird

Flowers visited by birds are usually sturdy and are oriented in such a way as to allow the birds to stay near the flower without getting their wings entangled in the nearby flowers. The flower typically has a curved, tubular shape, which allows access for the bird’s beak. Hummingbirds are attracted to brightly colored flowers, including yellow, orange, pink and purple, but they are attracted to red more than any other color, as red seems to be an indicator of food to these small birds.

Pink    Orange    Purple    Yellow   

Bees flying footer graphic