How to Attract Bees and Other Pollinators to Your Garden

Learn how to attract bees to your garden for healthier plants and pollinators.

  • The art of attracting pollinators boosts harvests and helps our food systems.
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  • Monarch butterfly goes to work on a purple coneflower in the garden.
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  • Diversity of colors and bloom times are keys to success in attracting pollinators.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • A monarch caterpillar feeds on milkweed.
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  • Whether you employ a mister, a birdbath, or another source, pollinators require water.
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  • Honeybees gather to hydrate.
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  • Providing a water source is a critical yet often overlooked aspect of attracting various pollinators to your backyard garden.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • A butterfly can't resist the appeal of the cardinal flower.
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  • The hairs on the bumblebee make them an extremely effective pollinator.
    Photo by Andrew Weidman
  • Chicory is another effective pollinator attractor.
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  • The best way to attract pollinators, like this bumblebee on a clover bloom, is to plant a diversity of pollinator-attracting species.
    Photo by Bossert

What do juicy peaches, ripe watermelons, plump tomatoes, fiery hot peppers, and crisp apples have in common? They all depend on a host of pollinators like bees, beetles, flies, butterflies, birds and bats to help them fruit. In fact, you would not be stretching the point to say that almost every food except for meat and grain relies directly on pollinators. That means pollinators are a big deal, three times a day, every day!

Our honeybees are in trouble, though. Since 2006, they’ve been in decline for a multitude of complex reasons. While no one understands exactly what’s wrong with them, researchers do know that the disorder turns apparently healthy beehives into a bizarre honeybee version of roach motels: Bees check out, but they don’t check back in.

The good news is that honeybees aren’t alone. Butterflies, moths, solitary bees, native bees, flies, beetles, even hummingbirds and bats are ready to take up at least a portion of the pollinating slack. A recent study of watermelon fields in the Delaware Valley of New Jersey and Pennsylvania found some surprising results. Of the 23 farms studied, native solitary bees visited enough melon flowers to completely pollinate 21 of the 23 fields. Thousands of solitary bees were observed, representing 46 different species, in a superb backup plan for the overstressed honeybee.

The bad news is … honeybees aren’t alone. Many of the same problems that the bees face are affecting other pollinators as well. Who can forget last year’s news? In an ironic twist, National Pollinator Week kicked off with reports of a massive bumblebee die-off on an Oregon parking lot, thanks to the careless use of Safari, a potent neonicotinoid insecticide, on linden trees in bloom. Tens of thousands of wild bees dropped from the sky. They made national news, but most pollinators don’t. Sadly, many more die quietly every day, falling victim to habitat loss and excessive use of harmful chemical agents.

That’s not all that’s happening. Suburban lawns, with their carefully manicured and clipped turf,
appeal to beneficial insects about as much as an interior stretch of the Sahara Desert. Our national landscape is losing meadows, hedgerows and woodlot edges at an alarming rate. Farmland is being developed into suburban communities or consolidated into massive single-crop operations, leaving fewer nectar- and pollen-bearing flowers and host plants to support pollinators through most of their active season. What remains — in flowerbeds, gardens and croplands — is unfortunately often laced with multiple harmful pesticides.

Our pollinators desperately need our help, but what can we do to help? As gardeners, we need to provide the resources they need to survive.

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