I’ve long thought that beetles are the some of the coolest insects: they come in almost every shape, size, colour and shade, and the metallic iridescence of some is quite as beautiful as the patterns on butterfly wings.

In all of our thoughts about pollination we often forget the beetles; they don’t have the long proboscis that bees and butterflies have, so what is their role in pollination? This is where – in my research for this article – I learned something really interesting: beetles aren’t after nectar like so many other insects. It’s the pollen they want – and they get it by simply eating the flower. In fact they can be pretty gross about it: they munch through the petals and other parts; defecate; roll around; and move on to the next plant covered in the sticky detritus which of course contains pollen!

The plants don’t care how the pollen gets carried, or how filthy the carrier, because the end result is still that their genes (in the pollen) are spread. Beetles are apparently (and understandably) often called “mess and soil” pollinators.

I remember a day many years ago visiting a wildlife reserve with my grandparents, and every yellow surface (my T-shirt included) was covered in tiny black beetles and I didn’t know why. Now I do; and I hope the T-shirt went straight into the laundry afterwards!

Flowers that are pollinated by beetles are known as cantharophilous ones: this lineage of plants split from the line that most flowering plants belong to longest ago, so are more distantly related than other plants. Many of them don’t even produce nectar, so pollinators such as bees, hoverflies and butterflies aren’t interested. Magnolia and rowan are two cantharophilous species you might be familiar with.

Not all beetles are pollinators of course; think dung beetles which aren’t interested in flowers. B but soldier beetles (quite long and thin, reddish or brownish, with a spot on each wing-case) are. They are quite common and often found on goldenrod and marigolds. (They’re are a good thing to have in your garden too because as well as pollinating, their larvae eat aphids and other pests!

There are also the delightfully named “tumbling flower” beetles, (named apparently for their erratic movements) the larvae of which live in trees, but the adults favour flowers in the rose and sycamore families. Some species of ground and rove beetles (these often have bright metallic wing-cases; some are called chequered beetles because of the patterns) are also pollinators, so look out for them.

If you’re cutting flowers for display, a good tip is to leave the flowers in a bucket of water in a dark garden or shed with the door ajar for 30 minutes or so; any beetles or insects nestled within the blooms will soon fly towards the light and out the door.

Apart from a few really distinctive species, beetle identification isn’t easy, but I’m definitely going to be taking a closer look at the ones I see on flowers in the future!