So, what is a pollinator? Any insect, bird or animal that spreads pollen from bloom to bloom e.g. bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, wasps, moths, flies. Why do we need them? By moving male gametes in the pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of a flower, they bring about fertilization of the ovules. In other words, they ‘pollinate’ the female flower and seeds, a fruit or vegetable develops. Without pollination annual flowers dependent on seed production would disappear but more importantly, food production would fall drastically and catastrophically.
How to encourage pollinators into your garden:
- Feed them nectar and pollen. Plant a mix of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals with a mix of flower shapes, colors and sizes that will bloom continually from early spring to late fall.
- It’s a good idea to have native plants at the heart of a pollinator friendly garden.
- Plant in groups or drifts to make the flowers easily visible to the flying pollinators.
- Avoid modern hybrids, especially those with “double” flowers. Plant breeders may have sacrificed the pollen and nectar to gain a showier bloom.
- Plant larval host plants for butterflies and moths. Many caterpillars can only feed on one or two specific host plants, particularly native trees, shrubs and perennials: e.g. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed, Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars feed mainly on spicebush and sassafras. Yes, the caterpillars will eat the host plant but it’s worth the sacrifice.
- Provide water for drinking and reproduction. You may already have a natural water source nearby, such as a pond or stream, but if not, create one. It doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated, a simple shallow dish or a dripping bottle will suffice. Be sure to change the water 2-3 times per week during warm weather when mosquitoes are breeding. A simple small solar fountain costs around $15 and will deter mosquitoes from laying.
- Provide shelter and nesting Sites. Bumblebees and many solitary bees nest in the ground and need open patches of bare soil. Dead wood provides nesting areas for a variety of pollinators such as some bees, wasps, beetles and ants. You can also create man-made nesting sites e.g. bee nesting blocks can be made out of an untreated wood block by drilling a number of holes approximately ¼ inches in diameter, and 3-5 inches deep. Mount the block on a post or the side of a building. An ideal place would be under the eaves of a garage or shed, which gives some protection from the rain. Pollinators also need protection for overwintering, so instead of cleaning up your gardens in the fall, wait until late spring. Perennials and grasses left standing will provide shelter and will give winter interest to your garden. Remember though, dead wood and piles of garden debris can also attract unwanted garden pests, so keep an eye on who’s living there.
- No pesticides! Always try a non-chemical or alternative pest control solution. Changing a gardening practice or the location of the plant can often solve the problem. If you must spray, look for less toxic options such as insecticidal soap, horticultural or Neem oil and apply them at night when bees are not foraging. At all cost avoid a systemic pesticide. These are chemicals designed to be applied to the soil and taken up by the roots, or sprayed on leaves and absorbed by the plant. Examples of their active ingredients are imidacloprid and dinotafuron. Once applied they move throughout the plant, including into pollen and nectar. While they can protect plants from certain pests, they can also hurt beneficial insects such as leaf-eating butterfly caterpillars and bees and other pollinators. See the post on how to deal with pests.
When choosing the plants a variety of shapes, sizes and colors is key.
Hummingbirds prefer red, pink, fuchsia or purple flowers. Butterflies enjoy bright colors such as yellow, orange, pink and red.
Night-blooming flowers take advantage of pollinators active at night, like moths and bats. Since they don’t see colors, these flowers are not as colorful. Instead, the flower’s fragrance attracts these pollinators.
Some plants for a sunny pollinator garden: Columbine, Butterfly Weed, Milkweed, Sunflowers, Sneezeweed, Marsh Blazing Star, Lobelia, Wild Bergamot, Lavender, Foxglove, Broad-leaved Mountain Mint, Black-eyed Susan, Blue-Stemmed Goldenrod, Smooth Aster.
Some plants for a shade pollinator garden: Columbine, Jack-in-the Pulpit, Phlox, Indian Pink, White Wood Aster, Blue-stemmed Goldenrod, Canada Violet.