Growing fruits and vegetables takes more than quality soil, well-timed moisture, and sufficiently mild temperatures. The unsung heroes of the garden patch are the pollinators that help ensure proper fruit development and that precious crop of viable seed for next year. Put it all together and you have a self-perpetuating system that will supply you with good food into the future and look great to boot.
For those who share a love and passion for gardening or crop farming, sowing a diverse group of plants is the quickest way to entice pollinators and ensure successful bounties for years to come.
Plant pollination: the pollinators
When we first think of plant pollination, it’s easy to think of bees and, in particular, honeybees, though honeybees are not native to North America. European settlers brought the honeybee to the New World around the turn of the 17th century, along with a bevy of plants that the “white man’s fly” (so called by Native Americans) pollinated.
Honeybees may be the most prolific pollinating insects, but with around 4,000 species of bees in North America, and the honeybee being only one of them, you’d be remiss to focus solely on the honeybee in attracting pollinators to your backyard garden.
Bumblebees also do their fair share of pollinating, as do digger bees, mining bees, orchard bees and a host of other natives, and for the most part these smaller often solitary creatures have a quality about them that might make a bald man jealous that they aren’t evaluated on how much pollen they can carry back to the nest – they are hairy.
Although these native bees don’t produce and store honey, they are invaluable to our food supply – be it pollinating a 1,000-acre monoculture or a quarter-acre backyard garden. Native bees in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been known to effectively pollinate watermelon farms, without the help of honeybees. Native bees also are efficient pollinators of pumpkins, tomatoes, apples and berries.
There are plenty of pollinators besides bees, though they aren’t quite as effective. Flies – hoverflies in particular – are good pollinators you might find hanging around flowers of various plants. Wasps do some plant pollination, while also helping backyard gardens by occasionally stinging an intruding herbivore.
Butterflies and moths are better at pollinating wildflowers than food crops, but they are still a welcome addition to a garden; after all, anything that leads to a more diverse group of flowers will help biodiversity and pollination. Not to mention, beekeepers should especially welcome butterflies and moths, since the flavor of wildflowers add that special flavor to honey.
Bats and hummingbirds also can be effective pollinators for the garden.
You also may see other more traditional birds, predatory beetles – such as ladybugs and lightning bugs – lacewings and parasitic wasps in your garden. They might not focus solely on plant pollination, but they do feed on crop pests.
To attract these pollinators and beneficial insects to a backyard garden, it is essential to provide a diverse plant habitat in which all can thrive.
With bees being your best pollinators, it’s good to know they require pollen and nectar in order to live.
Nectar is composed of sugars and water, and it provides adult bees with the energy they need to fly, build nests, collect pollen, and lay eggs. Pollen provides the protein necessary for the growth of young bees into adults, as well as brooding a new queen.
But not all flowers provide the pollen and nectar that bees need. When selecting flowers for your garden, use heirloom or native flowering plants. Hybridized plants may be sterile, and sterile plants are often useless to bees.
And avoid “pollenless” varieties of sunflowers and other flowers.
What and how to plant
Some families of plants that typically are great for attracting bees are the rose family (Rosaceae), mint family (Lamiaceae), and the aster family (Asteraceae).
It might surprise those long-removed from biology class that the rose family means a heck of a lot more than the pretty red rose young – and hopefully older – lads pick for the women they adore. The largest genus of the rose family is Prunus, with includes plums, cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds, among a multitude of others.
Strawberries and many of the fruits in the family are edible, so do some taxonomic homework and find plants that suit you to help attract those bees.
Mint family plants that attract the best pollinators include some favorite culinary herbs: basil, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, thyme, lavender and obviously mint. Hyssop is another good herb.
Forgotten among a lot of backyard gardens, or farmstead gardens for that matter, is the need to plant flowers for bees and other pollinators like the butterfly and those mentioned earlier.
These flowers should be all different colors, different shapes, blooming throughout the entire gardening season, planted in clumps of the same species and out of the way of strong winds.
As a lot of what you plant to attract pollinators is region-specific, you can learn what pollinator-friendly plants grow in your part of the country from the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) and the Pollinator Partnership.
More about attracting pollinators
Further methods for attracting some of those other pollinators mentioned are installing bat houses and bee nesting blocks. Birds and all beneficial insects need a place to live, so if there’s space to do so, consider creating a hedgerow or treeline – you can use it to separate your gardens – or a garden border with trees (fruit trees and conifers), flowering shrubs, perennials, more flowers, you name it.
It’s better to treat garden borders as a perennial space; weeding is good, but tilling might destroy the homes of beneficial insects that live in the ground.
Include plants in this border that bloom from early spring through fall to attract pollinators all season long, and make them tall and short. Taller, flowering perennials provide food for nectar-loving birds and insects. Shorter plants provide cover for ground beetles and protected areas where lacewings can lay eggs.
If you ever thought about installing a backyard waterway, there’s no better time than before the next gardening season, as a source of fresh water will help attract pollinators too. And next time there’s a tree limb or dead tree in a wooded area next to your garden, consider leaving it as a potential nesting spot.
And last but certainly not least, if possible, avoid the use of pesticides since, although designed to kill pests, the chemicals often kill plants and animals that aren’t pests. Pesticides can and do kill pollinators as well as some of the plants on which they depend.
Plant pollination indicators
Plants such as beans, peas, strawberries and tomatoes generally have perfect flowers that are self-fertile – the flowers contain both male and female parts, and the pollen produced by the flower can fertilize the ovum of the same flower. Some self-pollinating crops will fertilize themselves before their flowers even open (beans and peas), but others (strawberries and tomatoes) rely on vibrations caused by wind or by visiting bees to facilitate pollen transfer. Some native bees, especially bumblebees, can vibrate their wing muscles (called sonication) to release pollen from flowers (tomatoes, blueberries) – something honeybees cannot do – and when bumblebees move on to the next flower, they will transfer more pollen per visit than honeybees, says Julianna Tuell, tree fruit IPM (integrated pest management) outreach specialist in the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University. When bees move between the same kinds of flowers, the result is cross-pollination – the movement of pollen from one plant to another – and for many plants (strawberries and blueberries) this means larger and better quality fruits.
Plants such as squash, melons and cucumbers have separate male and female flowers on the same plant (synchronously monoecious). Bees move pollen from male flowers to female flowers – sometimes on the same plant (self-pollination) and other times on different plants (cross-pollination).
A plant is effectively pollinated when, after several days, the female flower dies and the tiny fruit-like swelling (ovule) beneath the flower, whether it is a squash, tomato or bean pod, begins to grow. If pollination did not occur, the ovule generally shrivels and dies.
Plant a diverse group of flowers, herbs, shrubs, trees, and other common plants in your area, as well as install a little extra cover and structures, and you’ll sustain your resident pollinator population that will, in turn, sustain your vegetable garden.
Mary Pellerito is a freelance garden writer living in Michigan.
Good border flowers
• English Lavender
• Blue Lobelia
• Joe Pye Weed
• Purple and Yellow Coneflowers