By pollinating everything from cucumbers to tomatoes to apples and almonds, insects like bees, wasps and butterflies play a critical role in gardening and agriculture. One estimate says that pollinators aid in the production of up to one-third of the food we eat. Without them, our kitchens and dinner tables would look dramatically different.
Unfortunately, some pollinators, particularly bees, are under pressure from parasites, diseases, a lack of habitat or forage and other factors. Gardeners can help improve pollinator health and increase their numbers.
Creating Gardens That Help Pollinators
When you mention pollinators, most people think of bees. However, pollination is not just about bees and not just about food. It’s also about the survival of many native insects, animals and plants for which pollination plays a key role in their life cycle.
Here are some tips for attracting pollinators and keeping them healthy.
Plant native plants. Ideally adapted, these are the perfect food source for many local pollinators. For a regional list of plants that attract pollinators, go to pollinator.org.
Plant diverse flower colors, fragrance and shapes. Bees are especially attracted to flowers in shades of blue, purple, white and yellow. Butterflies love red and purple blooms.
Plan for a long season of bloom. Combine plants that will bloom from early spring to fall (even in winter in mild climates). A long season of color means a consistent food source.
Plant in full sun. Many pollinators prefer to visit flowers growing in sunny locations.
Plant generously. Large groupings of flowers are more attractive than single plants. In general, planting at least 3 square feet is recommended.
Consider hybrid flowers carefully. Some hybrids are bred to have less fragrance, pollen or nectar.
Provide food and water sources. Use feeders to attract hummingbirds or salt licks to attract butterflies. Provide an accessible water source, such as a small bowl with tapered sides.
Provide habitat for nesting and egg-laying. Grassy or weedy areas, shrubbery, wooden logs “bat houses” and “bee blocks” can provide nesting areas and/or cover for pollinators.
Don’t forget herbs, vegetables and fruit. The flowers of many herbs, including rosemary, thyme, dill, oregano, parsley and coriander are loved by pollinators. The same is true for those of vegetables like carrots, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. Instead of removing or cutting back plants once they have bloomed or bolted, let pollinators enjoy them first. Even fruit trees that don’t need pollinators to produce fruit, such as many citrus and flowering pears, are good food sources for bees.
Use pesticides responsibly. Carefully follow label instructions and avoid spraying when pollinators are active. Early morning and late evening, when pollinators are less active, are good times to spray. Avoid spray drift by spraying during calm, windless weather. Even organic insecticides can negatively impact pollinators and should be used only according to label instructions.
Gardeners planting to attract butterflies should learn to accept some damage from caterpillars, which are butterfly or moth larva. It’s almost impossible to have one without the other.
What To Buy
From trees to ground covers, and from wildflowers to succulents, pollinator-attracting plants cover the entire spectrum of the plant world, offering a variety of planting options. Big or small, from landscape projects to simple containers of appropriate flowers every little bit helps. Most nurseries carry hummingbird feeders, but some are also branching out into bee blocks, bat houses and even bee keeping equipment and hives.
Although most foraging bees will not sting unless disturbed, pollinator attracting plants may not be appropriate for homeowners with known allergies to bee stings or a fear of bees.