Pollinators are essential to consider when you’re planting a garden. With the changing climate, pollinators need help to thrive and continue doing their jobs within the ecosystem.
Take these three steps to take to increase the number of pollinators in your garden:
- Include planting a pollinator-friendly garden
- Provide nesting habitats for them, and
- Avoid the use of pesticides in your garden.
Increasing pollinators won’t only help the health of your garden but also boost the numbers of pollinators in your area which is critical for overall ecosystem health.
In this article, we will walk through some simple steps for increasing the number of pollinators in your garden so that you will see more pollination activity in your backyard. Before jumping into some tips, we will outline what pollinators are, why they’re important, and examples of species that are critical for your garden’s health and proliferation.
What are Pollinators?
Pollinators are a variety of species that aid in the process of pollination. The process of pollination is the transfer of pollen from one flower to the next, or within the same flower for growth and proliferation. Pollinators will bring pollen from the anthers of a flower, which is the male organ, to the stigma of the same flower or another, which is the female organ.
This is a way for flowers to breed and spread. Once the pollen is delivered to the female organ of the plant, it results in fertilization. Once fertilization is accomplished, in flowers, in particular, it will result in the production of fruits and seeds. Seeds will then spread and turn into the next generation of plants. The majority of flowering plants rely on pollinators for their reproduction.
Pollination is an unintended consequence of pollinators feeding on the flower. They will sip on the nectar of the flower as a sugar source and will often gather pollen. Pollen is beneficial to pollinators for its density in proteins, fats, and other nutrients. Since this is such a symbiotic relationship, the fate of flowers and pollinators are linked.
Examples of Pollinators
While pollen can often spread via wind, water, and self-pollination, a major way of pollen spread is through biotic agents. Some of the notable pollinators include bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds,and bats, among many others.
Bees are the most important pollinators for wildflowers, agricultural crops, and horticultural plants. There are approximately 4,000 species of bees that reside in the United States and upwards of 20,000 recorded worldwide.
Hummingbirds are a major contributor to pollination across North America due to their long beaks that penetrate deeply into flowers. This differentiates them from other birds who are unable to access the nectar of flowers as readily. When drinking the nectar, often hummingbirds will get pollen on their beaks and feathers which is then transported to other plants and flowers.
Butterflies are not as efficient when it comes to pollinating as bees; however, they do transfer pollen from flower to flower that gets stuck on their legs while they are feeding on nectar. Butterflies are often more difficult to attract because their larvae, caterpillars, require specific plants to feed on during their growth periods.
Moths are similar to butterflies but very different in the way they look. They have different body structures and colors but transport pollen in similar ways to butterflies. Although, they primarily are active at night and in the early morning.
Bats are not found in all regions of North America but can be found pollinating agave and cacti in the Southwest, in addition to tropical and subtropical regions of the world. In more tropical landscapes, bats are helpful in pollinating plants including bananas, avocados, and cashews. Similarly to moths, bats are going to be attracted to flowers that open at night.
Flies are often overlooked as pollinators; however, there are so many species of flies and some do work to pollinate. They are generalist pollinators meaning they will visit a massive variety of plants in hopes to get the most nectar and pollen possible.
Beetles are not the most efficient pollinators, and only some of the 28,000 species act as pollinators. Only a few plants will be pollinated by beetles, including magnolias. For additional information about pollinators, take a look at this guide made by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Department.
Planting a Pollinator-Friendly Garden
When you’re choosing plants for your garden, remember that to attract a diverse grouping of pollinators you need diversity among the nectar and pollen sources being brought in. One way to achieve diversity in your plants is to choose flowers that will flower at different points of the year. This will ensure you have sources of nectar and pollen throughout the seasons.
Pollinators are more attracted to clumps of plants rather than one single plant that is placed a distance away from the next. If you plant your flowers closer together, you will see an increase in pollinators. Additionally, planting flowers that vary in color and shape will bring different pollinators into your yard.
As we previously discussed, there are so many different species that participate in pollination and they are all attracted to different traits in flowers. The NAPPC’s Pollinator Syndrome chart discusses the different types of flowers different pollinators prefer. This may help you buy a diversity of flowers to attract or keep away certain pollinators.
Whenever you can while gardening, try to choose native plants to put in your garden. If you are planting native plants and flowers, native pollinators will be attracted to them which can benefit pollinators by serving as larval host plants for them. This aids in the proliferation of pollinator species which will, in turn, benefit your garden and flowers everywhere.
If you are not sure which plants are native to your area and which would attract pollinators, check out the NAPPC’s Ecoregional Planting Guides. Additionally, if your area is home to monarch butterflies, by planting milkweed you may attract more of them to your garden as that is one of the primary plants their caterpillars feed on during development.
Providing Nesting Habitats
Nesting habitats differ greatly depending on which species you are providing the nest for; however, in order to increase pollinators in your garden having nests is critical.
Hummingbirds typically nest in a tree or shrub. They will utilize material from plants, mosses, lichens, and even spider webs to aid them in the construction of their nests. Unsurprisingly, much like their bodies, their nests are very small and can be extremely hard to find. They are going to be well off of the ground also, making them harder to find, and fairly camouflaged.
As previously mentioned, caterpillars need certain plants to feed on while they grow into butterflies. Therefore, butterflies are going to lay their eggs directly onto these specific plants. If you are buying the right plants for the variety of butterfly species, then you will be properly providing nesting sites for them as well.
Bees can differ in the way they nest depending on species. However, the majority of bees are going to nest in the ground, in wood or inside dry plant stems. When it comes to making hospitable spaces for bees to nest, there are a few factors to consider.
- Most bees are solitary nesters, except for bumblebees and non-native honeybees
- If you have bumblebees, they have been seen nesting in holes in the ground, in openings in walls, in bird boxes, and other small cavities that have been formed by other species.
If you are looking to create ground nesting sites for your local bees, simply keep a maintained and undisturbed small patch of bare or sparsely vegetated ground in your yard that is well-draining. This kind of ground will attract bees for nesting. It is optimal if the site faces south as that allows the bees to get the maximum amount of sunlight during the day.
If you are looking to create a good wood nesting site, this may be a bit more difficult for you to control. Carpenter bees generally make their own nests into the wood, unlike the majority of other bee species that will look for pre-created holes and cavities to inhabit. Carpenter bees will generally take matters into their own hands, ignoring possible efforts you’ve made.
Some tips for helping out carpenter bees include:
- Leaving a dead tree or limb in your yard. Leave this undisturbed and it may serve as a good nesting habitat for carpenter bees.
- When you are pruning your plants, be aware of any stems that feel hollow or extremely soft inside. This could be an indication that you have bees nesting in there. In this case, cut some stems back to about a foot tall to help the bees create a nesting site.
- Some plants that are susceptible to bees nesting include raspberries, roses, sumac, elderberry, goldenrod, and coneflower.
- Setting up “bee blocks” can be a nice way to provide nesting areas. Some bees take well to these artificial nests, just be sure that they are preservative-free wood blocks with drilled holes of differing diameters.
- Note if you are using these it is best to line the block with paper and replace it annually to avoid any spread of disease to and from bees.
Avoiding or Minimizing Pesticides
Many gardeners will use pesticides to keep out any undesired pests; however, be aware that pesticides can also be extremely harmful to the pollinators and beneficial insects that reside in your garden. Many insects in your garden can provide pest control for your plants and flowers if they are not impacted by pesticides.
Another major issue with pesticides is that they often kill predators which will then create even more of a pest problem because nothing is predating on the smaller pests. Instead of taking out predators, it’s best to encourage native predators to inhabit your garden.
One of the most important things to remember in your gardening is that you must expect and accept small amounts of pest activity. It is inevitable and even pesticides will not completely eliminate your problem; therefore, the more tolerant you are the better off you will be when dealing with pest activity.
If you decide that you absolutely need to use pesticides, consider these few points:
- Only utilize pesticides when you absolutely need to, they should not be used as a preventative measure.
- Research on which pesticide is going to be most effective for the pest you are targeting to find the option that will be the least toxic for the species you are not targeting.
- Choose a pesticide that does not persist in or on your vegetation. These will stick around for longer periods of time and result in the death of other species for a longer duration. This can also have an impact on the health of your vegetation.
- Look at the bottle for the amount you are supposed to use. Try using the smallest amount possible that will be effective. This will minimize any unwanted consequences.
- Avoid applying pesticides during the bloom of wildflowers. This can affect their health and have major implications on the pollinators.
- Apply your pesticide during the times the pollinators are least active. This is generally going to be late afternoon or evening.
- Using a hand sprayer instead of aerial applications can help you target problem areas rather than dousing your entire garden.
- Using dust can spread easily with the wind and impact other plants, instead try to buy liquids that can be sprayed or granules.
- Avoid spraying pesticides all together when it is extremely windy outside.
- Avoid use of pesticides near water bodies or any sensitive habitats as you can quickly infect large areas with pesticides that can have detrimental impacts.
- If you are near any beekeepers and are using a compound that can be harmful to honeybees, be sure you notify beekeepers in your area several days in advance so that they can take precautions.
Again, using pesticides is going to be extremely risky. Pesticides are not good for the environment as they throw off the balance of the ecosystem by wiping out large numbers of a certain species. They can also drive pollinators away which can result in less success in your garden.
Garden Designs to Increase Pollinators
As previously mentioned, gardening a wide variety of plant types can increase the number of pollinators you find in your garden. The Urban Bee Lab in California confirmed that it is vital to plant a minimum of 20 different plant types in order to cover the bee and flowering seasons ranging from midwinter until the end of October.
Since each pollinator has a different season that they are most active, by planting a minimum of 20 plants you will ensure your blooming is staggered to fit the needs of all the pollinators. Similarly, each pollinator has a preference for the kind of plants they like to collect from, so apart from selecting a variety, you need to curate your variety for the species you want to see.
For example, a hummingbird may be able to reach nectar and pollen that bees cannot simply due to their long extending beaks and tongues. Additionally, there are a plethora of plants that we often consider to be weeds that are actually quite attractive to a variety of pollinators. Leaving areas of your garden weedy can benefit pollinators and serve as nesting grounds.
To avoid your weeds becoming invasive, feel free to remove them from your garden immediately after flowering begins to decline. Some weeds that are especially helpful and useful for pollinators include thistles, bristly ox tongue, and dandelions.
When designing your garden, leave space for a shallow dish or birdbath to fill with water. Many pollinators, including honey bees, require water for survival; however, they can also easily drown if the water is too deep. There are two ways you can avoid any of your pollinators drowning, including:
- Placing pebbles or stones in the dish
- Using a piece of floating cork board or wood for pollinators to utilize
On top of providing water, it is critical to provide shelter for many species of pollinators. All pollinators need protected spaces to raise their young, lay eggs or hide from potential predators. Shelter can be given in a variety of ways. Many choose to put out bat houses, bee boards or boxes, or simply have excess trees, shrubs, grasses or weeds for pollinators.
Bee conservation has been of huge concern lately as their species is hugely impacted by human disturbances and have many natural enemies. The good news from this is that gardeners have put more thought and research into how to create the optimal home for bees. This has increased the abundance of bees in many peoples’ yards.
By planting a variety of bee-friendly plants, you are successfully contributing to bee conservation and will see the results in the health of your garden. On page seven of this publication, you will find a chart of some of the best plants to introduce into your garden to create a honeybee home.
Many gardeners try to avoid attracting butterflies due to the aesthetic of the garden after it becomes a home to caterpillars. As caterpillars grow they eat an abundance of leaves, often leaving holes and spots in plants while also making a mess. They are known to leave chewed up leaves and their droppings all-around their homes.
Although this can turn off a number of gardeners, there are so many benefits to bringing butterflies into your garden. The best way to design your garden to attract butterflies is to provide nectar-rich plants.
Butterflies will feed and pollinate from late summer into the early fall; therefore, if you are hoping to cater to them, be sure you have flowers in bloom during that time of the year. If you lack flowers during that season, you will be unable to attract these pollinators into your garden.
Additionally, if you see signs of butterflies in your garden, be sure you do not fuss with the plants that they are likely to lay their eggs on. If you trim these plants, blast them with water, or toss the leaves around too much you will risk knocking the eggs off of the plant and having an unsuccessful breeding season.
If you are designing your garden specifically for the attraction of hummingbirds, a few characteristics to look for in your flowers are going to include:
- long trumpet-shaped bulbs
- red in color
- a large content of nectar
- little to no scent
An increasing amount of flowers you will find in North America have adopted these characteristics to adapt to hummingbirds since their visitations are both helpful for the flower and the bird. Flowers will place pollen on the heads and bodies of the birds when they drink nectar, making them hugely successful pollinators, sought after in gardens.
The use of feeders will increase the visits you will get from hummingbirds as they will be a consistent source of nutrition for them. This will ensure they frequent your garden throughout the year and feed on both your feeder and plants. However, feeders require maintenance to ensure they are clean and healthy for the birds.
To successfully set up a feeder, you will need to start with a clean feeder. Fill it with a sugary solution. A common recipe is to combine one part sugar with four parts of water. Sugar should be the only addition to the recipe as honey or any other sugar concentrate, such as agave or maple syrup, can be extremely harmful to the birds and can result in death.
The majority of feeders are tinted red to attract hummingbirds, therefore, it is strongly discouraged to add red food coloring or dye to the mix as it can compromise the health of the nectar you are supplying.
These feeders should be cleaned with soap and water and refilled once weekly. This is especially important during the most active months for hummingbirds. If your feeder gathers grime and dirt, you will see a decrease in these pollinators coming to your garden.
Be sure you discard the old nectar when you clean out your feeder as it can ferment and turn into alcohol if left for too long. It is recommended that if you live in an extremely hot environment that you replace the liquid every two to three days as this can ferment your nectar faster.
Attracting pollinators into your garden does not need to be difficult, but it does take some strategy and planning. If you are not properly planning and thinking about the layout you desire in your garden, you may not see as many pollinators as you desire.
When it comes to planning your garden, it is first and foremost important to think about the types of pollinators you hope to see in your yard. If there are specific species you want to ward off, look at the plants they steer clear of and avoid any plants that they seek out.
Similarly, if you are looking to attract a specific species, look at some of the resources linked above for the best plants for each species. By looking for these specific plants you will bring more of these pollinators in. Remember, it is going to benefit your garden and your pollinators if you are able to find plants they enjoy that are also native to your region.
After you’ve found your ideal plants, designing your garden correctly is going to be critical for an increase in pollinator populations. Ensuring you are planting close together in clusters rather than planting your plants at a distance from one another will be more attractive to your pollinators.
Additionally, leaving space for nesting is going to be critical for attracting pollinators. If you leave ground space for bees that prefer nesting in the ground, tree and bush cover for hummingbirds, and even boxes or man-made wood holes for bees to nest, you will see more coming into your garden.
Remember that many of your pollinators will nest in the ground, in stems of plants, on the leaves of plants, or in other unexpected places. Once all your flowers have bloomed and you feel there is a decent amount of pollinator activity, try not to disrupt the garden too much as it may drive them away or harm them.
Lastly, pollinators are critical in our world for fruits, vegetables, and wildflowers. Without them, we would not have any of these crops; therefore, it is critical that we treat them correctly and try to conserve them as much as possible. Creating a pollinator-friendly garden is a great first step in doing your part to conserve these species.
Another critical step to take to ensure the conservation of your pollinators is to avoid the use of pesticides. If you are using pesticides frequently, you may find that pollinators are being impacted and, in turn, dying off around your garden. Your pesticides can travel to neighboring gardens and hugely impact populations.