How to Attract Bees and Other Pollinators to Your Garden

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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.

The simple requirements are water, food, shelter and security.

Water can be provided in several different ways. If you have a leaky water faucet outside, let it drip slowly, forming mud puddles. Birdbath basins can double as “bug baths,” outfitted with an island of gravel, or floating wood or bark rafts for safe landing strips. Water features and ponds can be modified to include a pebble beach where insects can safely drink, protected from hungry fish. Even lawn sprinklers and mist emitters are effective choices — some insects prefer to get their water “on the wing” by flying through the mist.

Food sources can be a bit more involved, but not necessarily more difficult to provide. “Plants That Attract Pollinators,” below, will give you some suggestions for preferred plants. You want species that offer a steady supply of pollen and nectar, and host plants for butterflies and moth caterpillars. Remember, host plants are there to be eaten, so try to keep them tucked away in the back of the beds, where holes and chew marks won’t be noticed.

Envision your flowerbeds as banquet tables. There should always be a fresh offering of an assortment of flower types blooming in your garden, from the first clouds of oak and maple blossoms to the last sprays of aster and goldenrod. Start with single blooms like hollyhocks, cypress vine and bellflowers. Add in some composite flowers such as sunflowers, coneflowers and dandelions. And don’t forget umbel and spray formations like yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod. Remember, continuous variety is the key.

Is there a leftover planting of leeks or parsley from last year’s garden? Let it bloom. How about a fence line of chicory, wild asters and clover? Pollinators will love you if you leave it be. You can even plant an herb bed of lavender, mint, thyme, dill and sage.

Be careful as you make your selections, as not just any flower will do. Native plants and “old-fashioned” flowers provide more nectar and pollen than showy modern plants bred for doubled blooms and bright colors. Many of the newer selections don’t even produce nectar or pollen. And a word of caution: Invasive exotics like purple loosestrife and Japanese honeysuckle often crowd out more useful food sources and should be avoided.

Shelter can easily be offered, often by “doing nothing.” Hold off on garden cleanup until after winter has passed. Those brush piles, wads of leaves, and spent perennials provide a cozy winter shelter for our six-legged friends. If you can, maintain a small patch of bare ground or sand, about 3 square feet, for ground-nesting solitary bees. Mason and orchard bees will feel right at home if you offer them wooden nesting blocks. These blocks have blind (dead end) holes drilled 4 to 6 inches deep in a variety of sizes (9/64, 5/16 and 7/16 inch), and are mounted 3 feet above the ground on posts. Add a roof piece to make sure rainwater can’t wash into the holes. Bumblebees will appreciate a wooden nest box built from plans provided by The Xerces Society.

Finally, pollinators need to be assured of poison-free “room and board.” If at all possible, avoid using pesticides. Recent studies have shown that mixtures of herbicides and fungicides, normally harmless to insects, can be deadly when combined with each other. If you must spray for problems, use a few common sense cautions.

Spray only in the early morning or late evening when pollinators are resting. Choose treatments that break down quickly and are pest specific. Follow the directions carefully. More is definitely not better when using pesticides, whether conventional or organic.

If you can, consider building new “pollinator beds” in islands and corners of your lawn, and turn your property lines into plant-filled “travel corridors.” Close-cropped, open turf is unbelievably sterile to pollinators, offering absolutely nothing of their requirements. Of course, you don’t need to turn your entire backyard into a wildflower meadow. Even four or five patio pots kept in a constantly blooming rotation can be a vital bridge between gardens. Also, talk to your neighbors about pollinators. A new bed or two in every lot of a neighborhood would have a tremendous impact.

This winter as you dream of your new garden beds, plan one for the bees.  

Pollinator garden basics

1. Use a wide variety of plants that will bloom through the season.

2. Include host plants for butterfly larvae.

3. Avoid modern hybrid flowers, especially “doubled” blooms.

4. Eliminate pesticides as much as possible.

5. Provide a water source.

6. Leave patches of bare ground for ground-nesting bees.

7. Perform garden cleanup in the spring instead of fall.

8. Remove exotic invasive plants.

Plants that attract pollinators

1. Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii)

2. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

3. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

4. Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

5. Blue Cardinal Flower (Lobelia syphilitica)

6. American Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

7. Beebalm (Monarda didyma)

8. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

9. Heartleaf Golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera)

10. Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) 

Andrew Weidman is a native of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, who has been researching and writing about historic vegetables and gardening for several years. He is a member of the Back Yard Fruit Growers and formerly served as a Penn State Master Gardener for Lebanon County.

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