How to garden for pollinators

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bee on a black-eyed Susan

If you like to garden, and even if you don’t, you should appreciate pollinators.

Do you like flowers? It’s estimated that 90 percent of flowering plants rely on pollinators.

Do you like food? A third of food crops rely on pollinators for reproduction.

We depend on pollinators for more than we realize. Not only do they provide the food we eat and the flowers we enjoy, they influence the overall health of our ecosystems. They are a species that every other species depends on for survival. Without them, most of our natural ecosystems would collapse.

Unfortunately, pollinator populations have been declining due to habitat loss, invasive species, pesticides, diseases, parasites and climate change.

So what can we do?

Although many factors are contributing to diminished pollinator populations, we can help them by planting more pollinator-friendly gardens. Planting more native plants and providing more nectar and pollen sources will help improve the health and numbers of bees, butterflies, birds, bats and other pollinators.

Planting native plants

There are many benefits to wildlife in general when you plant native plants in your garden. One of the biggest is attracting pollinators. Native plants are adapted to the local growing season, climate and soils. These qualities make them a reliable food source for pollinators. On the other hand, non-native plants may not provide enough nectar or pollen or may be inedible altogether. Evolving with pollinators, native plants cater to the needs of a variety of pollinators.

Pollinators

Bees. Bees are the most effective pollinators because they only feed on flowers. Bees gather both pollen and nectar from flowers. They feed on nectar to fuel their flight and collect pollen to feed their young. Bees prefer blue, purple, white, orange and yellow flowers with sweet fragrances. Bees can also see ultraviolet colors, which can be found on the flowers of buttercup and black-eyed Susan.

Butterflies. Butterflies aren’t as effective pollinators as bees, but are still very important. You can attract butterflies to your garden by growing a variety of nectar-producing native flowers. Butterflies prefer flat or clustered flowers the provide a landing platform, like the sunflower or aster, but will feed on many nectar-rich flowers. They like red, purple and yellow flowers with sweet scents. For more on gardening specifically for butterflies, read How to create a butterfly garden.

Moths. Moths often go undetected because they are active at night. However, like butterflies they rely on nectar as an energy source, seeking flat or clustered flowers that provide a landing space. They prefer nocturnal flowers in white or dull colors.

Hummingbirds. Specializing in nectar feeding, hummingbirds play an important role in pollination. They serves as a link between plant populations by moving pollen over farther distances. To attract hummingbirds to your garden, you want to provide a constant flow of nectar from spring through fall. While hummingbirds prefer red, tubular flowers, they will feed on most flowers that produce abundant nectar. For more on gardening specifically for hummingbirds, read How to plant a hummingbird garden.

Beetles. Although beetles are considered undesirable guests in many gardens because they eat through the leaves and petals of flowers, they are actually the largest group of pollinators. They prefer dull white or green colored flowers with strong fruity scents.

Flies. Flies are another important group of pollinators. Many are specially adapted to pollinate specific plant species. Flies prefer pale, dull, dark and drab flowers with a strong putrid aroma.

Bats. Bats are another nocturnal pollinator. They prefer dull white, green or purple flowers that have a strong musty odor emitted at night.

Pollinator gardening tips

Native plants. Pollinators are best adapted to native plants, which are often more suited to the environment and the pollinator than ornamental plants. Native plants promote biodiversity and ecosystem health. They provide shelter, food with greater energy rewards, and act as a larval host for native pollinators.

Plant clusters. By planting clusters of each plant species you’ve selected, you can help pollinators find the plants they need and improve their foraging efficiency.

Seasonal planting. Your garden should be blooming throughout the growing season. You can accomplish this by planting willow, violet and mayapple for spring and aster, joe-pye weed and goldenrod for fall.

Diversity. Plant a variety of flowers with abundant pollen and nectar, as well as, specific host plants for feeding butterfly and moth caterpillars. By choosing many different colors and shapes, you can attract a variety of pollinators.

Avoid chemicals. Pesticides and herbicides kill pollinators and may even harm native plants.

Sun. Plant your pollinator garden in an area that gets a lot of sun. Also, provide areas with sunny, bare soil that’s dry and well-drained, preferably with south-facing slopes. Many pollinators require warmth from the sun to be active.

Give them shelter. You can make small piles of branches to attract butterflies and moths. Nesting bees will seek shelter in hollow twigs, logs with holes, stumps, old rodent burrows and fallen plant material if you leave some laying around. You might also leave dead or dying trees for woodpeckers.

The messier the merrier. It might go against your nature, but sometimes a messy garden can be more attractive. Most species of native bees nest underground, so don’t use weed cloth or heavy mulch. You may also want to provide shallow puddles of water and mud. Mud is used as home building material by wasps and bees and also provides important minerals for butterflies.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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