The majority of flowering plants, including many rare and threatened species, are pollinated by animals, but little is known of pollination and breeding systems of many endangered species. Polemonium caeruleum (Polemoniaceae) is a red-listed species and is regarded as dichogamous, self-compatible and bee pollinated. However, some studies show that it is visited by a vast assemblage of anthophilous insects from many taxonomic orders and that breeding systems vary greatly between closely related taxa of this genus. Over a period of 3 years we investigated breeding system, dichogamy, nectar secretion and composition, insect visitations and pollen loads in flowers of P. caeruleum in north-eastern Poland to determine whether the reproductive biology of the plant explains its rarity. Contrary to published data, our study plants were self-incompatible and showed a high degree of outcrossing. Our experimental work confirmed the occurrence of protandry in this species, revealed that nectar is sucrose-dominant and proline-rich and, for the first time for Polemoniaceae, that nectar secretion and nectar sugar concentration in flowers of P. caeruleum is female-biased. Although flowers were visited by at least 39 species of insects from five taxonomic orders, overall the plant exhibited many characters associated with bee pollination, and analysis of insect performance showed that bumblebees and honeybees are the key pollinators; occasionally hoverflies and butterflies may also be involved. We conclude that, in terms of pollination system, P. caeruleum demonstrates high apparent generalization, but low realized generalization, and is a functional specialist, as most pollinators belong to a single functional group (guild). Its conservation status, at least in our study population, cannot be explained in terms of the biological properties of its breeding or pollination systems; rather, the present decline of the species is caused by habitat loss. However, if this process and bumblebee decline in Europe continue, P. caeruleum populations may diminish in numbers and density and, owing to the self-incompatibility of the species, quickly become severely pollen-limited, thereby accelerating further local extinctions. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 173, 92–107.