Particle 101: Nectarivores

Welcome to the world of sweet-toothed critters
Camila Pardo Uribe
Camila Pardo Uribe
Freelance Writer
Particle 101: Nectarivores
Image credit: Simon Colenutt CC BY 4.0

If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be familiar with the burst of energy known as a sugar rush.

But what if your survival depended on it? Would you love it as much?


Animals get the nutrients they need from different sources.

They have been broadly classified as carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. But animal diets are more varied and specific.

For instance, a nectarivore is the term for an animal that feeds mostly on nectar.

In other words, nectarivores feed on liquid candy.


Nectarivores need the energy that nectar provides to maintain their metabolic functions.

But plants need these animals to feed on nectar too.

When nectarivores sip on nectar, they collect scattered pollen produced in a flower’s anthers (male reproductive organs).

Then, when they visit another flower, they help transfer the pollen to the flower’s stigma (female reproductive organ).

This is how pollination occurs. And without pollination, there would be no plants.


WA is home to a variety of avid nectarivores, including approximately 800 species of native bees.

A bee is a nectarivore: eating a flower's nectar
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A bee’s tongue

Image credit: James Petts CC BY-SA 2.0
A bee’s tongue
A bee's mouth parts are adapted for eating nectar
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Mouth parts of a honeybee

Image credit: MostlyDross CC BY 2.0
Mouth parts of a honeybee

And although not native to WA, the European honeybee is one of the most common nectarivores in the region.

A honeybee’s tongue is called a glossa. It is a segmented tube covered in tiny hairs that trap nectar and suck it like a pump.

A rainbow lorikeet eating nectar
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A rainbow lorikeet enjoying nectar

Image credit: David Clode
A rainbow lorikeet enjoying nectar

Rainbow lorikeets are another nectarivore that’s widespread across Western Australia. Like the European honeybee, they are an introduced species, but a key part of WA’s landscape.

They have rough tongues with brush-like tips that extend to capture and savour nectar from bottlebrush, eucalyptus and grevillea flowers.

A honey possum eating nectar from a banksia
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Honey Possum

Image credit: Kym Nicolson CC BY 4.0
Honey Possum

And then there are natives like the elusive honey possum. This small marsupial has a long snout, few teeth and a bristled tongue as long as its head.

These adaptations help it sip rapidly on its favourite banksia flowers. A convenient adaptation, since it can sip up to its total body weight in nectar daily!


Nectar is a wonderful treat, but not every animal can get a taste of it.

It is usually reserved for animals with specific traits, like those previously described.

Sometimes, flowers will only attract a specific kind of pollinator, leading to what scientists have named pollination syndromes.

These tight bonds between animal and flower are forms of ecological specialisation. And scientists have found that the Southwest Australian Floristic Region is home to a variety of these interactions.

For instance, flowers in the region visited mainly by bees tend to be small, blue and yellow and to store pollen inside them.

And some species of native plasterer bees have enlarged mouthparts (known as palpi), which allow them to extract nectar from the long silky-leaved blood flowers.


Nectarivores come in many shapes and sizes. And so do their tongues.

As pollinators, they are responsible for our plant diversity and crops. Therefore, protecting our nectarivores means ensuring our own survival.

As many species around the world face extinction, protecting nectarivores is fundamental.

Because who would have known that a sweet tooth could do so much for us?

Camila Pardo Uribe
About the author
Camila Pardo Uribe
Camila is a science communicator from Colombia with a background in literature and biology. When she's not talking about hummingbirds with the people around her, you will find her trying to master the perfect selfie with any animal that comes her way or complaining about the weather.
View articles
Camila is a science communicator from Colombia with a background in literature and biology. When she's not talking about hummingbirds with the people around her, you will find her trying to master the perfect selfie with any animal that comes her way or complaining about the weather.
View articles


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