Bees may look tiny, but they are mighty. Honeybees and other pollinators are essential species in our planet’s ecosystem. More than 80% of the world’s flowering plants need pollinators to help them reproduce. What’s more, on average, 1 out of every 3 bites of food you eat is produced with the help of pollinators. That includes chocolate, coffee, apples and other fruits, pumpkins, almonds and much, much more.
Unfortunately, as most of us are aware, pollinator populations are declining. Much of that has to do with the frequent use of pesticides in farming and the increasingly industrialized and intensified farming practices of large-scale food producers which fragment and destroy habitats. But it’s not just big agriculture companies causing pollinator populations to drop. Invasive pests, like mites, and viral and fungal pathogens introduced from abroad, as well as climate change and pollution are to blame as well. But there is hope.
Bees and pollinators need our help to make a comeback and growing a pollinator-friendly home garden is one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to help. And if you think you need a large property to make an impact, think again. Whether you have farm or a window box, if you follow a few simple steps, you’ll be well on your way to building a pollinator habit that bees and butterflies won’t be able to resist.
What are pollinators?
When most people think about pollinators, they think about bees. And with good reason. Because most of their life is spent collecting pollen, bees are one of the most efficient pollinators around. In fact, a single bee colony can pollinate over 3 million flowers in a single day!
But, as important as they are, bees are not the only pollinators. Hummingbirds, butterflies and dragonflies are stunning pollinators that are welcome additions to any garden. Less obvious are moths, flies and beetles, which are essential pollinators for many plants. And though we may not at first think of it, birds, bats and even some rodents qualify as pollinators, and they are good ones at that.
Whether they come on six legs or wings, pollinators use specialized mouthparts to drink nectar and eat pollen from flowering plants. In the process, they collect pollen on their fur, feathers or scales and carry that pollen from plant to plant. This process, known as cross-pollination, is vital for the reproduction of many plants and the cultivation of nuts and fruits like blueberries, apples and pumpkins. Not only that, cross-pollination also increases genetic diversity in plants, producing plants that are more hardy and capable of resisting environmental change.
Wildflower seeds for bees
Honey Bee Habitat
Growing a Pollinator Garden
Like all living beings, pollinators have several key things they need to survive: food, water and shelter. Pollinators also need a safe and secure environment that is free of synthetic chemicals and pesticides that do not discriminate between garden pests and pollinators. Below are some tried and true ways to ensure you craft the best pollinator habitat you can provide. A successful pollinator garden does not need to include all of these elements, but the more you provide, the more pollinators you are sure to attract.
Diversify your beds
Humans have different tastes. Some of us prefer pizza for dinner, while some of us would rather have sushi. Some of us like to dress in all black, while others choose pastels and sparkles. Just as we have our preferences, pollinators do too. That’s why the most important first step when you begin planting your pollinator garden is to plan for diversity.
Hummingbirds, bees, beetles and butterflies all have different needs. They are attracted to different colors, shapes and scents. For example, hummingbirds are mostly drawn to tubular flowers, as the long, thin profile of their beaks is perfectly suited to these shapes. Conversely, small beetles are better suited for foraging in tiny flowers that fluffy bumblebees could never fit in.
But preferences extend far beyond flower shapes. Colors and scents are important too. Blue, white, yellow and purple blooms tend to draw in bees, while hummingbirds prefer vibrant reds and oranges, and butterflies seek out red and purple flowers. Nocturnal bats, however, are less attracted to colors (which don’t show as well in the dark) and, instead, seek out strong, musty-scented, night-blooming flowers.
In order to maximize the pollinator potential of your garden, the number one thing you can do is to provide variety. When choosing flowers, pick different colors, shapes, sizes and scents so that whatever type of pollinator discovers your garden, it is sure to find something to eat.
Plants that attract bees
Plants that attract hummingbirds
Plant for larval stages too!
As with butterflies and caterpillars, many kinds of pollinators have different needs throughout their lifecycles. While the monarch butterfly enjoys the nectar from butterfly bushes, as caterpillars they feed exclusively from milkweed plants. If you’re trying to attract a particular pollinator, make sure you have your garden planted to provide for all of its life stages. Without a host plant for the pollinator larva, adults won’t have any place to lay their eggs or, if they do lay their eggs, larva may have nothing to eat.
For maximum impact, plant several different species of larval host plants to ensure you attract a variety of butterflies.
Plant for sequential blooms
A bed full of spring-blooming tulips is of little use to pollinators in August. Similarly, if you’ve only planted autumn-blooming asters, the first pollinators that emerge in springtime will remain hungry pollinators indeed! This is why it is essential to plan for your entire growing season when you start designing your pollinator garden.
Planning for sequential blooming can be as simple or elaborate as you like. Some gardeners choose to time blooming bulbs right down to the week, making for an ever-alternating riot of colors in their yards. Other gardeners select a few, long-blooming varieties, like hydrangea, roses, thyme, chives and nasturtium, that keep their blooms longer and, when paired together, provide pollen for pollinators all season long. To be particularly beneficial to pollinators, try to ensure you have late and early blooming flowers in your garden for when pollinators go into and emerge from winter dormancy.
Group those flowers
Many pollinators are not the strongest fliers and are only able to fly short distances between flowers. Not only that, but even the brightest flowers can be difficult for pollinators to spot when they are planted singly. For this reason, it is very important to plant pollinator plants in groups, called “drifts.” Drifts are groups of plants, frequently planted in odd numbers, like 3, 5 or 7. Drift planting allows pollinators to more efficiently fly between flowers and reduces the need for pollinators to have to “relearn” how to enter different flower shapes when foraging. Even better, drifts are also more visually impactful for human eyes and lend a more organic look to your garden.
Choose native plants
Native plants are plants that have evolved within and are found naturally in your specific region. Because they’ve evolved locally, they are perfectly adapted to the particulars of your environment, making them much easier to care for. This means that pesticides and fertilizers are often less necessary when gardening with natives because they are already adept at dealing with local pests, weather patterns and the like.
Because they are both local to a region, native plants and pollinators often have evolved symbiotically to benefit each other. Native plants benefit by being pollinated, which allows them to produce the seeds and fruit needed to create their next generation. In turn, these native plants evolved to be particularly enticing to native pollinators by growing in shapes, colors and scents that draw pollinators in and are easiest to pollinate.
Gardening with Native Plants
Pollinators of Native Plants
Grow an herb garden
Yes, oregano, sage and thyme are excellent additions to the pantry, but did you know pollinators love them too? Once you have harvested your herbs from garden beds, don’t pull out or prune your plants. Most common kitchen herbs, left to their own devices, flower in brilliant purple, yellow and white blooms that attract pollinators. Allowing your herbs to flower is one of the easiest (and tastiest!) ways to encourage pollinators to take up residence in your garden.
Give weeds a break
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what you once thought of as “weeds” may take on a new charm when you begin a pollinator garden. While dandelions and clover are often vilified, they are loved by pollinators and provide them with a ready source of nectar and pollen. Wild goldenrod and asters are frequently the last blooms in autumn gardens, but their nectar helps late season pollinators survive harsh winters.
For many gardeners, growing a pollinator habitat brings with it a shifting view of what qualifies as a weed. If it is directly useful to pollinators and is not a damaging and invasive species, consider leaving it in place. If you have a hankering to weed something, study up on invasive plants in your area and police your yard with vigilance as certain invasive species can outcompete the native plants that pollinators need to survive.
Grow a pollinator lawn
So, you’ve grown to love clover and you can turn a blind eye towards dandelions. But have you ever thought of growing a pollinator lawn? Grass lawns are deserts for pollinators. A bloomless monoculture, they provide no nectar and can even deplete soils. However, alternatives exist.
If you’re up for something a bit different, consider planting a clover lawn. Clover lawns can be grown on top of an existing grass lawn by sprinkling a fine layer of mulch on your grass before sowing your clover seeds so that the seeds have a place to root. If you want a more drastic change or are just starting out with a new property without an established lawn, clover can be seeded directly onto bare soil. In addition to providing nectar for pollinators, clover lawns improve soil structure and nutrient content, require less frequent mowing than grass lawns and are more adaptable and drought-tolerant, thereby eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Beyond clover, pollinator lawns can also be started from a range of other plants. Wild strawberry, wild violets, creeping thyme, creeping Charlie and self-heal are some other great options for low flowering plants that make great ground covers and lawn alternatives. Seeds and seedlings are available for purchase online.
If you don’t want to plant an entire pollinator lawn, consider reducing your lawn size by expanding garden beds to provide more space for pollinator habitats. The pollinators will thank you and you’ll also have less grass to cut.
Avoid hybrid flowers
The mad scientists of the plant world create stunning new hybrid plants every year. However, the problem with these hybrids, especially double flowers, is that they have been so genetically manipulated by humans that many of them no longer produce their natural scents, pollen or nectar. This means that they are completely unusable for pollinators. Instead of selecting the newest creation in the seed catalog or your local garden center, opt for heirloom plants, which are old, tried and true varieties that still retain many of their original characteristics that will draw in pollinators.
Amp it up with some feeders
Whether you’re working with a small patio and want to increase your pollinator potential, or you’re just looking to add more food options for your garden guests, pollinator feeders are always a great option. Store-bought hummingbird feeders come in all sorts of cute shapes and sizes and can jazz up any patio, deck or garden with their bright colors. Though these types of feeders are marketed as “hummingbird feeders,” they will attract other pollinators like bees, hummingbird moths and butterflies. Feeders should be emptied and thoroughly cleaned twice a week to prevent harmful mold growth.
If you’re into DIY, you can craft some simple pollinator feeders with just a few materials. A simple butterfly feeder can be made by fitting a plastic champagne coupe onto an appropriately sized wooden dowel rod. Place a plastic mesh scouring pad inside the coupe and then add nectar. Scatter a few of these feeders throughout your garden and the butterflies won’t be able to stay away.
Another easy DIY option is simply to fill a pie pan or other shallow dish with overripe fruit and leave it in a sunny spot. Bananas, apples, pears and oranges tend to be crowd favorites with butterflies and bees. Replace the fruit daily to ensure the health of your pollinators. If you would prefer a hanging feeder, punch holes in the edges of your pan or lace twine around it macrame-style and hang it from a hook or branch. You can add colored beads for a bit of visual interest and to make your feeders more visible to pollinators.
If you’re using feeders, there is no reason to purchase store bought nectar, which is often full of artificial coloring and preservatives. Simply mix one-part refined white sugar with four-parts water and stir until the sugar is totally dissolved. You do not need to add red dye. It is important that you only use white, refined sugar. If you have leftover sugar water, it can be stored in your refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Wooden Insect House
Add a water feature
Just as water is essential for humans, it is necessary for pollinators too, particularly at the peak of a long, hot summer. Adding a water feature to your garden can be as simple or elaborate as you choose, but it is sure to be a hit with pollinators.
The most obvious choice for a garden water feature is a bird bath. Bird baths provide water not just for birds, but also for many pollinators like bees and butterflies. If you’re using a bird bath, be sure to clean it two to three times a week for the health and safety of birds and pollinators alike.
For a more elaborate option, DIY or premade fountain, pond and waterfall kits (available at many garden and home improvement stores) are also great options. Though they are pricier, they are more permanent, and pollinators are sure to be drawn to them.
Make a butterfly “puddling pool”
“Puddling pools” are a specific type of outdoor water feature meant to draw the attention of butterflies. If you’ve ever noticed butterflies congregating on the edges of shallow, muddy pools you’ve witness the allure of puddling pools in action. While butterflies primarily feed on nectar, they do require other nutrients and male butterflies need salt. Puddling pools provide both salt and added nutrients and can help ensure your garden is an absolute butterfly paradise.
To make a puddling pool, all you need is a shallow pie tin or plastic, glass or terracotta saucer. Fill the saucer or tin with sand or gravel and then bury it to the rim in your garden in a nice, sunny spot. Pour water into your “pool” until there is just a small amount of water above the sand or gravel. The shallowness of these pools keep delicate butterflies from being overwhelmed by deeper water features and drowning.
Butterflies will tend to frequent puddling pools at the heat of the day, generally from 10AM to 2PM, so be sure to check your pools regularly and add fresh water as needed. If you have a soaker hose or dripline system, they can be rigged up to feed your pools automatically. You can add multiple pools throughout your garden to encourage butterflies to forage and pollinate more.
For an added bonus, from time to time, sprinkle a small bit of salt, leaf or manure compost or overripe fruit to the top of your pools for a nutrient boost. If you’re adding fruit, bananas and oranges are often butterflies’ fruit of choice.
If you don’t want to maintain your puddling pool, allow your hose to gently trickle on an area of bare soil to create a natural mud puddle for butterflies.
Leave sheltering trees for the bees
Like humans, pollinators can’t just live on food and water alone. They also need a safe and secure place to shelter from the weather. The easiest way to provide this shelter is with the plants that are already growing in your yard.
Trees and hedges make wonderful natural pollinator habitats and can protect them through the hottest months of summer and the coldest months of winter. But it’s not just living trees that are beneficial. Old, dead limbs and trees provide homes for many different types of pollinators. As long as they don’t pose a threat to damaging your property or falling on someone, consider leaving dead trees and limbs in place for pollinators to take up residence in.
Wait, don’t mow that!
Another way to provide a natural source of shelter for pollinators is to leave a portion of yard to grow wild. Not only will this section of wild grasses and plants provide a habitat for pollinators, but it will also give space for native plants to grow. As native pollinators generally prefer native plants, an unmowed section of lawn will sure to be a hit. As an added bonus, by leaving an area to grow wild, you don’t have as much lawn to cut and maintain!
Don’t rake that either!
Because many pollinators overwinter in fallen leaves and other dead plant matter from the previous season’s growth, it can help them out a lot to leave some plant matter undisturbed throughout the winter months. It doesn’t have to be your whole yard, but if you wait to clean up a garden bed or two until the following spring, you will be leaving a safe haven for pollinators to weather out the cold.
Other natural shelters
Beyond trees, hedges and old plant matter, there are other natural shelters that different sorts of pollinators are likely to frequent. Some of these include open, bare soil, mulch, wood piles and compost heaps. If you have the space, try to incorporate as many of these options as possible into your landscape to give pollinators the option of where they want to shelter.
Add a bird house… or a bat box
Though gardeners often think of bees and butterflies first, birds and bats are also excellent pollinators and can even rid your garden of many unwanted pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Encourage them to take up residence in your yard by adding a bird house or a bat box. The more you add, the better! Bat boxes can be found at many garden supply stores; however, if you’re handy, tutorials on how to make one are available online too.
Bird Box House
Add some insect hotels
Insect hotels are small houses that are made specifically for solitary bees, ladybugs and other pollinators to overwinter in. They can be purchased online or at many garden supply stores, but if you want to make your own, go for it! A very simple insect hotel can be made just by piling a few logs together at the edge of your yard. If you’re handy, stack bricks together or nail a few pieces of wood into a box shape and fill it with dried plant matter, small sticks, pinecones or cut pieces of bamboo. Insect hotels should be located in dry, sheltered spots, like under an evergreen tree or the eaves of your home.
Steer clear of chemical fertilizers
Chemical fertilizers may boost your plants temporarily, but in order to improve soil in the long run, you need to add compost. There are many different options when it comes to composting. You can choose the traditional hot or cold outdoor composting methods. Or you can choose more modern methods like Bokashi composting or vermicomposting, also known as composting with worms. Whatever route you decide to take, composting is the surest way to improve your garden in the long run, grow healthier plants and reduce garden pests. It will also eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers, which can be harmful to your health, as well as pollinators.
Garden wisely to reduce unwanted pests
When it comes to battling garden pests, the best thing you can do is to prevent them from taking up residence in your garden at all. Garden maintenance is important, so be sure to check your plants regularly for any signs of infestation. If an infestation is spotted, clean up affected plant matter and properly dispose of it by burying or burning it. If you’re growing vegetables, rotating your crops year to year can do wonders for preventing pests as well.
Even with your best efforts, garden pests are going to happen. Just like getting your hands dirty, it is a simple and inevitable part of gardening. What is not inevitable, however, is the decision to use synthetic pesticides. Read up on pest control barriers, such as fencing, fruit protection bags and floating row covers. If you elect to use pesticides, choose organic ones such as diatomaceous earth, BT Thuricide, neem oil and organic soap sprays and be sure to never dose plants that are in bloom. It also helps to recognize that perfection has little place in a garden. You’ll stress a lot less if you are willing to accept a little plant damage from pests.
No matter how small, make your space work for you
If you want to help pollinators, but you don’t have a large yard, don’t worry. Even a small patio or a window box can be put to good use. Large scale industrialized agriculture has destroyed many pollinator habits and the habitats that remain are often fragmented and spaced far apart from each other. Because many pollinators cannot fly very far, this fragmentation can make it difficult for them to forage for enough food. A well-spaced window box can make all the difference for bees trying to make it to the next field of wildflowers! If you’re working with a small space, hang up a hummingbird feeder or two, place out a shallow saucer of water, and plant a few small, planter-friendly pollinator plants, like sweet alyssum, or herbs like chives, sage and lavender. The pollinators will find you.
Other ways to help pollinators
Pollinator gardens are important ways to help pollinators make a comeback, but they aren’t the only solution. Community wide and even larger scale changes need to occur as well. That’s why it is important to spread the word about pollinators, their usefulness and ways to help them. During holidays, consider gifting a hummingbird feeder, some wildflower seeds or an insect hotel to a friend. Or invite your neighbors over to visit your pollinator garden and see if they get inspired. It all helps.
If your local community has a community garden or land conservation projects, consider donating or volunteering. If there is a local beekeeper in town, buy their honey. When stocking up on groceries, choose local and organic. These simple decisions counter large-scale industrialized agriculture, reduce emissions from transport trucks and decrease the use of chemical pesticides. As consumers, we are always voting with our dollars and, in the fight to protect pollinators, it is important that we consciously choose pollinator-friendly produce and other items as much as we can.
We need pollinators. But pollinators need us too. They need us to be their voice and speak up for them when we can and to vote with our dollars. And they need us to help ensure that they have the habitats and food they need to survive. Pollinator gardens look pretty, yes. But they are also serving a purpose and it is an important one. By building a pollinator habitat you are helping to ensure that there will be pollinators in the future. Whether you elect to hang a simple feeder or grow an elaborate garden, is your choice. What is important, however, is that you choose to help pollinators when you can.
- Gardening with native plants (book)
- Window box planter
- Wildflower seeds
- Herb seeds
- Hummingbird feeder
- Insect hotel
Flower Seed Grow Kit
- Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 2021
- Blackstone, Victoria Lee. How to Make a Butterfly Puddling Pool. SF Gate. 30 October 2019
- How to Attract Pollinators. Miracle Gro. 2021
- Hummingbird Nectar Recipe. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. 2021
- LaLiberte, Kathy. Attracting Butterflies, Hummingbirds and Other Pollinators. Gardener’s Supply Company. 16 September 2021
- The Most Efficient Pollinator. Pollenity. 2020
- Toscano, Kimberly. Growing Host Plants and Nectar Plants to Attract Butterflies. American Meadows. 2021
- What is a Pollinator Lawn? Pollinator Friendly Alliance. 2020