Updated: Oct 25
I hope you are already convinced that pollinators are essential to our gardens. Without them we wouldn't have a large majority of our favourite foods, like tomatoes, and watermelon, and chilli peppers. Yummy! We also wouldn't have most of the flowers that make our gardens so spectacular. So let's take some time and talk about how to not only attract these helpful guys to our yards, but to also keep them there year round so they can continue to do their hard work year after year.
Let's begin by identifying who exactly pollinators are. Everyone knows bees, but there are so many, many more! Even when we talk about bees, most people automatically think of honeybees. Those are not actually the best at pollinating, our native bees are. Ones like native bumblebees, mason bees, sweat bees, and leafcutter bees. All of these can easily live in our growing spaces, happily working away, without the need for hives and any maintenance from us. There are also many other insects, besides bees, that significantly contribute to pollination services. These include wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, and flies. All of them are fantastic pollinators too. And then there are the non-insect pollinators like hummingbirds and small mammals.
Beetles pollinate too! (photo by Pixaby)
How do we encourage all of these different organisms to call our gardens home? Well, we give them what every living thing needs: food, water, and shelter. These things are traditionally found in natural spaces, so one of the keys to welcoming pollinators is to make our gardens as close to nature as possible. Let's take a look at these three necessities in more detail.
Surprise! Pollinators need pollen and that means flowers! Some of them also need nectar, which also means flowers. So, we obviously need to have flowers. But don't think of just the typical annual bedding plants. These flowers can come in the form of annuals, vegetables, herbaceous perennials, shrubs, or even trees. They can be deciduous or coniferous. All can provide pollen. There are some things to consider when we select which flowers to include in our gardens.
The longer blooming the better. Many annuals will bloom for the entire growing season. That is good, but not all pollinators are attracted to annual bedding plants. That's where perennials come in (either herbaceous, shrubs, or trees). When it comes to perennials, we want to ensure we have at least three different pollinator-friendly plants blooming at the same time. That way our pollinators have options. Plus, if something blooms earlier or later than normal, or happens to have an off year, there is still something available for food. Also, think about including early spring bloomers, like dandelions and haskaps, for the early emerging pollinators. Similarly, include some late fall bloomers, like asters, chrysanthemum, and rudbeckia for those that can handle cooler fall temperatures. Some weeds can be helpful, as they bloom very early and very late in the growing season. Don't forget to include some flowers that leaves their blooms open at night. Our pollinating moths need food too.
Hummingbird Hawk Moth on Phlox (photo by Pixaby)
When designing you growing space, think about large swaths of a single bloom instead of individual specimens interspersed throughout the landscape. Pollinators have a much easier time finding a large group of blooms than a single one. Large swaths also mean less fly time, and therefore less energy spent finding pollen sources.
The ideal flowers are going to be natives, without a doubt. Our native pollinators have evolved for hundreds of years alongside their native food sources and they are perfectly suited to each other in the timing of their blooms with pollinators' life cycle, as well as the shape of the bloom and nutrition of the pollen. They are a perfect match. So if at all possible, go with native plants.
For times when we can't find natives, or they are not appropriate in our specific growing space, look for species standards instead of hybrids. Hybrids have been purposefully selected for certain traits, like fancy blossoms or different colours or longer bloom time. Many hybrids either don’t have pollen and nectar, or are physically too complex for pollinators to access, such as with many double flowering varieties. When you are in the garden centre you can identify if a plant is a standard species or a hybrid by looking at the tag. Standard species will have only the Latin name, hybrids will have a fancy title in addition to the Latin name (either one or two words of that Latin name). For example, coneflowers come in many different varieties, cultivars, and hybrids, as well as the standard species. The one labelled just Echinacea purpurpea is the standard species. Hybrids have an additional name, such as Echinacea ‘Pink Double Delight’ or 'Butterfly Kisses' Coneflower.
Different types of pollinators generally prefer specific types of flowers, and we can include these characteristics in the plants we choose to attract each specific type of pollinator.
For instance, bees prefer flowers that are blue, violet, white, and yellow. And they are particularly attracted to flowers that have patterns or lines to guide them inside the flower to where the good stuff is; kind of like and landing pad and sign pointing to the pollen. Foxgloves are a great example of this (see the photo below).
See the fuzzy bum? And see the spots directing the bumblebee right into where the pollen is?
Butterflies also enjoy blue and violet flowers, but they are attracted to red blooms too. And they absolutely love flowers in the umbellifer family. These include dill, cilantro, Queen Anne's Lace, and yarrow. Umbellifers have nice flat clusters of flowers that are easy to land on, have lots of small flowers to collect pollen from, and have deep nectaries that can easily be accessed by those long butterfly tongues.
Although moths look very similar to butterflies, they have their own specific requirements when it comes to flowers. They feed mostly at night time, so they must have flowers that are night blooming. They also need blooms that are easy to find in the dark, such as white, cream, and light green colours.
Beetles are very important pollinators and they are often forgotten about, so it pays to plant some blooms specifically for them. They enjoy cup shaped blooms that are easy plop themselves right into. Things like Bellflowers (Campanula), Cup-and-Saucer vine, and Gloxinias will all bring in the pollinating beetles.
That's a tiny beetle (and a few more inside) a bellflower. (photo by Wikimedia)
We can't forget those tiny pollinating birds in our flower collection either. As you can tell from every hummingbird feeder ever made, these guys love, love, love the colour red. They also prefer tubular shaped flowers that they can really get their long tongues into and slurp up that nectar. It's that nectar that they are really after. Pollination is a kind of afterthought, so the flowers must also have lots of nectar in them. Honeysuckle vine is a great choice, as is Salvia (perennial sage) and Penstemons (beardtongue).
Blooms and Other Food for all Life Stages
To keep pollinators around or coming back year after year, we need to provide food, not just for pollinating organisms, but for all life stages of those organisms. For example, if we want to have butterflies and moths in our gardens, we need to be okay with having some caterpillars. Yes, caterpillars that may eat the foliage of some our plants. I have seen many people plant milkweed in their gardens to attract monarch butterflies, and then freak out when they see caterpillars absolutely annihilate that milkweed. Well, those are monarch butterfly caterpillars, and we can't have the butterflies without the caterpillars. So we need to be okay with some damage from them. The same goes for many of our pollinating flies and beetles. Hoverflies are fantastic helpers in our gardens, not only for their pollinating prowess, but also because their larvae are voracious eaters of aphids. But guess what happens if we get rid of all the aphids in our garden? No hoverflies. Similarly, if you want pollinating wasps in the garden, you need to have some caterpillars for their larvae to feed on. And yes, you do want pollinating wasps. They are super funky looking (see below) and they don't sting people. They are amazing.
A cutie patootie hoverfly doing a great job pollinating (photo by Pixaby)
Bottom line is that we need to have a fully functioning, biodiverse growing environment to support our pollinators through all stages of life. Diversity is the key! We need to have lots of these "good guys", but we also need to be okay with a few "bad guys" that are either food for our pollinators, or actually are our pollinators, just in juvenile stages. If something in your garden is looking suspicious or munching on your plants, do a little research and find out what it is! Chances are it is something beneficial, at least in one stage of its life. There are far, far more beneficial organisms in our gardens than harmful ones. In addition, hold off on the pesticides. They will not only kill our pollinators, but they will kill our pollinator's (and our birds') food sources. Stay away from from the herbicides and fungicides too, as these are directly consumed by pollinators as they collect pollen and nectar.
Looks scary right? Maybe your first instinct is to squish or spray? Don't do it!
This is a hoverfly larvae enjoying a tasty aphid. (photo by Flickr)
Food for our pollinators can be quite complicated, as there are many types of pollinators, but water is much more straight forward. Everybody needs water. The only difference will be in how they access it. While birds, like hummingbirds, do well with things like birdbaths, insects tend to need more shallow water. We can provide this by putting some stones into our birdbaths to create some less deep areas or landing pads. We can also provide some 'purposeful puddles' which are just depressions in the landscape that collect rain water for a brief amount of time. Puddles are also great for insects because they are closer to the ground, and many of our insect friends don't like to fly very high. Location of water sources can also be important. Situate them in full or partial shade to reduce evaporation. Ensure they are close to shelter or protection of some kind, such as dense shrubs. This provides a place to escape from predators as well as protection from the cold and from wind (a big deal when you are an tiny insect trying to get sustenance on a windy day). Don't forget to keep those water sources filled! Pollinators will go elsewhere to find water, and our goal is to keep them here where we need them.
Even the easy addition of some fern fronds allow these bees to access the water easily and safely. (photo by Pixaby)
Creating shelter for pollinators is another huge topic. Not just because there are so many different types of pollinators, but because there are also many different types of shelter we need to provide. And we need to provide all those types of shelter for all seasons and for all stages of life. As mentioned above, that includes protection from predators as well as protections from the elements. Pollinators need refuge from cold temperatures, hot temperatures, from wind (especially our delicate insects like butterflies), and from flooding. During the winter months, there also needs to be spaces to overwinter. Some of our pollinators overwinter as eggs, some as larval stages and some as full grown adults. We need to provide for all of these. Shelter includes nesting areas too; for everyone.
That's a lot of different kinds of shelter we need to provide. How do we do it? The answer is to provide as much diversity as humanly possible in our growing spaces. As with our efforts to provide food, we want to shoot for many different varieties, many different species, and many different plant types. We also want to provide diversity in habitats. Want to make the biggest impact possible? Be lazy and don't clean up your gardens in fall. Leave that cleanup until spring, when we have consistent temperatures above 10 C. Why? Almost all of our beneficial insects, including those pollinators, overwinter in leaves, stems, and the duff layer (the dead plant material left behind by annuals and perennials when they die back in fall). Those dead stems from our perennials are great egg laying sites for our solitary bees and beetles too. Much better habitat than commercial mason bee houses. Look for stems that are 1/4 to 1/8" in diameter. Those stems also provide sites for fly and wasp larvae to overwinter. You can see these as bulbous growths that we call galls. Did I mention that leaving all that material over the winter gives you some amazing winter interest in your yard as well?
Dead leaves, stems, branches and trunks are habitat for innumerable species, like these galls housing wasp larva.
The second biggest way to provide shelter for our pollinators, is to allow for some brush piles and snags. Brush piles are exactly what they sound like: piles of branches and other plant material. And snags are dead tree trunks that are left in place. These provide the single most used shelter for all of our wildlife in all seasons. Insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals all use snags and brush piles for shelter. And they use them from spring right through to winter. Are they pretty? Not really, but we can sneak a brush pile in behind some shrubs or trees where they aren't in spotlight. Snags can be prettied up with some annuals in containers or with some sparkly patio lights. Take a look on Pinterest, you will find tons of ideas. Plus all those insects in snags, brush piles, leaves and duff provide food for our nonmigratory birds in the winter. Win-win.
Last, but not least, it is helpful to provide some bare soil. Most of our solitary bees prefer this for overwintering and nesting. You don't need a big area, just a few small spaces without plants or mulch tucked away behind some large trees or shrubs. Think of it as an excuse to be lazy in just a small space.
Bumblebee nest on some messy looking, not at all cleaned up, bare soil. (photo by Pixaby)
That's all you need to provide food, water, and shelter for pollinators to work year round in your growing spaces. Diversity is the key! Diversity in our plant choices and diversity in habitat. Include as many natives as you can. Go for the messy or kind of wild look, just like in nature. And stay away from the chemicals. Your vegetables, fruits, and flowers will all thank you with abundance and health. Not to mention a fully functioning ecosystem.
Yummy gardening everyone!