Planting for Pollinators

Bee on lavender plant

The decline of pollinators such as honeybees and monarch butterflies has been prominent in the news recently, and as a result I am frequently asked if I can design pollinator gardens. The good news is that different types of pollinators exist everywhere, and it does not take much space to provide a place for food, shelter and rest. If you have enough nectar-rich plants in your gardens, hummingbirds, butterflies and bees will find it. Pollinators are not only beautiful to have in the garden, they also increase flowering and the amount of fruit and vegetables your garden produces. A good pollinator garden design can make your yard a neighborhood hotspot and add to the mosaic of habitat available to these important creatures.

Why are pollinators so important?

Birds, butterflies, bees, flies, moths, bats, beetles and other animals pollinate at least 75% of flowering plants. This includes important crops such as almonds, coffee, tomatoes, squash, apples and berries. Our diets would be a lot less interesting without pollinators! Pollination by honeybees and other insects accounted for $29 billion in US crops in 2010. Without the assistance of pollinators, most plants cannot produce fruits and seeds. The fruits and seeds of flowering plants are an important food source for people and wildlife. Some of the seeds that are not eaten will eventually produce new plants, helping to maintain the plant population.

Threats to Pollinators

Populations of honeybees made news in the US in 2006 as 30-90% of colonies died off in what is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is still being studied but is thought to be caused by several factors that put bees over the tipping point. These include loss of habitat to urbanization, disease, insecticides and climate change.

Bird and butterfly populations face major stresses due to loss of habitat for nesting, food and migration. In California, monarch butterfly numbers dropped by 86% in 2018.

A Note About Neonicotinoids:
Neonicotinoids (neonics) are a class of insecticides from the 1990s that were initially believed to be less harmful to birds and insects than other insecticides. However, since their introduction, the widespread death of bee colonies, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, has been linked to neonics in several studies. Neonics also shed off of plants and pollute water. In fact, recent studies found contamination in more than half of all streams sampled in the US, which can affect all wildlife. The EPA is currently reevaluating neonics to see if their use should be restricted or banned. To ensure that your pollinator garden does not harm the wildlife you’re attracting, do not use neonics. Look for and avoid the following ingredients in pesticides and insecticides: acetamiprid, clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.

Planting for Pollinators

Every person with access to a small bit of yard or even a balcony can help build a patchwork of habitat for pollinators. Below are some guidelines on what to plant to attract and support bees, butterflies and birds.

Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden

  1. Don’t use pesticides. Particularly, do not use neonicotinoids. Most pesticides are not selective. You are killing off the beneficial bugs along with the pests. If you must use a pesticide, start with the least toxic one and follow the label instructions to the letter.
  2. Use local native plants and heirloom varieties when possible. Research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers. They are also usually well adapted to your growing conditions and can thrive with minimum attention.
  3. Make sure not to plant sterile varieties of plants (you can usually find this on the plant tag), since pollinators can’t feed on those. Most “double flowered” plant varieties are sterile.
  4. Plant flowers in clumps. Flowers clustered into clumps of one species will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered through the habitat patch. Where space allows, make the clumps three feet or more in diameter.
  5. Include flowers of different shapes. There are many different species of pollinators with various tastes that will enjoy the buffet of flowers you’ve planted.
  6. Have a diversity of plants flowering all season so that you can feed pollinators from spring through fall.
  7. Have water and shelter available. A dish of water and some rocks or logs are sufficient. Consider building a bee box to encourage solitary, non-aggressive bees to nest there. Leave some soil uncovered for native bees, many of whom nest in the ground.

Hummingbirds like lots of color, especially red, and gravitate toward tubular-shaped flowers. They appreciate large clusters of their favorite plants so that they can flit from one to another.

Some hummingbird favorites include:

  • Coral Bells (Heuchera)
  • Hummingbird Mint (Agastache)
  • Beardtongue (Penstemon)
  • Sage (Salvia)

Butterflies prefer bright colors including red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blooms with umbel (umbrella) shapes. One thing to keep in mind is that in order to attract and keep butterflies in your garden, you have to be willing to feed their offspring. That means putting up with some destruction from feeding caterpillars in the spring. If you can deal with the temporary destruction, the reward, of course, is a garden alive with the color and beauty of hundreds of butterflies.

Some butterfly favorites include:

  • Milkweed (Asclepias): an essential food source for local Monarch butterfly caterpillars.
  • California lilac (Ceanothus)
  • Dill, parsley, fennel
  • Lantana
  • Yarrow (Achillea)


Bees prefer blue, purple, white and yellow flowers.

Some bee favorites include:

  • Catmint (Nepeta)
  • Lavender (Lavandula)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus)
  • Stonecrop (Sedum)

 

Resources for further reading:
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: https://www.fws.gov/pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html
USDA Forest Service: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/gardening.shtml
Xerces Society: https://xerces.org
Pollinator Partnership: http://pollinator.org