In an age of colony collapse disorder, it can be difficult to attract European honeybees–until recently one of North America’s most prolific pollinators–to your garden. Fortunately, there are about 4,000 species of bees in the United States alone, so just because managed hives are collapsing, it doesn’t mean your garden has to go without pollinators. There are steps you can take to attract additional species of bees and pollinators such as other insects, birds, and bats.
Provide nectar and pollen
Not surprisingly, each species of pollinator has its favorite flowers or combination of flowers.
Let’s look at bees for a moment, since they’re usually the most populous pollinators in a garden. Research at UC Berkeley has shown that gardens with at least ten kinds of attractive plants bring the most bees to the garden. This same research team discovered that bees were particularly drawn to homogeneous groupings of the same kind of flowering plant, spaced closely together and planted in at least 1.5-meter square plantings. Because different kinds of native bees may be active at different times of the year (depending on your climate and location, of course), it’s a good idea to include in your garden a variety of plants that flower in different seasons.
More specifically, bees’ selective color vision means they are drawn to white, yellow, blue, and purple flowers. Look for flowers with only one row of petals (as opposed to having multiple rows of petals, like carnations or roses). In her book Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, Rachel Kaplan lists these plants as being especially attractive to bees: mint (or anything in the Lamiaceae family), lavender, yarrow, clarkia, gaillardia, delphinium, poppies, penstemon, milkweed, ceanothus, grindelia, fireweed, verbena, and dusty miller. Also check out bee balm, thyme, sage, buttercups, clematis, clover, cosmos, dahlias, echinacea, geraniums, hyssop, sunflowers (and actually any kind of Asteraceae), and zinnias. Trees with high nectar content include Korean Evodia, crabapple, mountain ash, buckeye, and magnolia.
Don’t discount wasps, either. While many people consider wasps to be pests, they can be beneficial in eradicating garden pests, including caterpillars and hornworms. Some kinds of wasps are drawn to flowers of plants in the carrot family (Apiaceae), which includes fennel, dill, cilantro, parsley, and chervil.
Hummingbirds are among the pollinators most popular with gardeners. To attract hummingbirds, grow nectar-rich plants like fuschia, salvia, lupine, penstemon, columbine, coral bells, and butterfly bush. When flowers aren’t in bloom, you can attract hummingbirds with a feeder.
Finally, some species of bats are pollinators, but because bats are active at night, you need to provide night-blooming variations of plants like moonflower, cleome, evening primrose, datura, four-o’clock, yucca, water lily, jessamine, and nicotiana.
Reduce (or better yet, eliminate) pesticides
Pesticides can pose a hazard to any pollinators, but they can be especially hazardous to bees.
Different pesticides affect bees in different ways; the most bee-friendly gardens are completely free of pesticides. There are two basic kinds of pesticides: contact and systemic. Contact pesticides are sprayed or powdered on the plants, while systemic pesticides are applied to the soil—or are bred right into the seed—and thus are taken up by the entire plant, including its nectar and pollen. Bees are susceptible to these pesticides while pollinating flowers; they appear to be especially sensitive to dust and powder pesticides.
Actual damage to bee populations is a function of toxicity and exposure of the compound, in combination with the mode of application. A systemic pesticide, which is incorporated into the soil or coated on seeds, may kill soil-dwelling insects, such as grubs or mole crickets as well as other insects, including bees, that are exposed to the leaves, fruits, pollen, and nectar of the treated plants.”
Provide shelter–and materials for shelter
One really awesome way to attract beneficial wildlife to your garden is to build a bat house. Depending on the species, bats can pollinate your plants or eat insect pests. Bat houses are actually fairly easy to build, and they may be much smaller than you might first assume, so they’re quite unobtrusive. I haven’t yet built a bat house for my garden, but I own–and will be using when I do eventually build a bat house–The Bat House Builder’s Handbook. Amazon.com’s description calls it “the definitive source for bat house information,” and it really is–it’s a slim, straightforward book packed with great information, and it’s a great value.
You can also encourage hummingbirds to nest by providing both nesting material–including downy material like mildweed, thistle, cattail, fireweed down, spider webs, and lichen–and a place to establish their nests. These tiny birds like to nest between one and 15 meters from the ground, near the end of a branch that is sheltered by leaves above it. They seem drawn to ironwood, beech, yellow birch, oak, hackberry, maple, and pine, though this is by no means an exhaustive list.
You don’t need to set up a honeybee box to maintain a bee presence in your garden. Not all bees live in hives or colonies. In fact, many bees build nests in soil, so it’s a good idea to disturb the soil as little as possible if you see bees hovering near the ground. In addition, bees may have difficulty nesting in hard, compact soil. Other bees nest in cavities; most of these bees are opportunistic, nesting in holes in trees or human-made structures, but some, like carpenter bees, chew their own cavities into wood.
In addition to protection from predators, butterflies’ delicate constitution means they also need to be shielded from wind and rain. I’ve seen butterflies take shelter from rain under a variety of large-leaved plants, but you can also add shrubs to your garden that have relatively dense foliage and attract butterflies. Try planting butterfly bush, spicebush, and lilac, or provide evergreens or even rocks large enough shelter butterflies on their lee side.
Provide fresh water
A simple birdbath will provide sufficient water for pollinators. Bees and butterflies, however, can drown in the birdbath unless you provide a perch for them. Try leaning a few sticks or twigs on the edge of the birdbath, with one end floating on or sinking into the water.
Be sure to dump and refresh the water regularly, not only because fresh water is better for pollinators, but because mosquitos can lay eggs in standing water and reproduce very quickly.
Created by the two leading organizations in pollinator conservation, the Xerces Society and Bee Works, The Pollinator Conservation Handbook is an indispensable resource for gardeners, farmers, and managers of parks, recreational areas, and wild lands. It will guide you through the steps for creating and improving habitat for insect pollinators, including selecting and planting forage flowers, providing nesting and egg-laying sites, and caring for your pollinator habitat over time.
The Forgotten Pollinators delves into the fascinating world of pollination. The authors, an entomologist and an ethnobotanist and nature writer, illustrate the importance of this interaction between insect and plant, which provides the world with one-third of its food source. Using colorful examples–including a moth that rappels down cliffs to pollinate a plant in Hawaii–they also explain how modern developments are threatening this essential process. Published through the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the book is aimed at raising awareness about the potential loss of pollinators and their plants, while showing the larger picture of a fragile ecosystem through the eyes of some of its more unnoticed inhabitants.
Attracting Butterfles and Hummingbirds to Your Backyard reveals the secrets for creating irresistible gardens and a welcoming landscape, which will lure these amazing creatures up close and personal for your enjoyment and wonder. Author Sally Roth knows the best plants, feeders, and water features that appeal to butterflies and hummingbirds, plus she offers an entertaining and insightful guide to butterfly and hummingbird behavior.
How do you attract pollinators to your garden?
Image credits: Bee by Holly Occhipinti, and used under a Creative Commons license; spectacled fruit bat by Shek Graham, and used under a Creative Commons license; bat house by colmmcsky, and used under a Creative Commons license.