A few weeks ago my two daughters and I sowed the first seeds for our pollinator garden. I was sowing them neatly in rows, and my two-year-old was sowing them by dumping out the packet of sunflower seeds in one big pile. My four-year-old was standing by, asking me questions. And can I just say that I had an epiphany while I was trying to explain to her the concept of pollinators? I was listing off a few examples and said, “You know, like birds and bees.” And it hit me that birds (some of them, anyway) and bees are pollinators that help plants with reproduction, and maybe that’s why they call that talk “the birds and the bees.”
I could be wrong about that. But it’s the best explanation I’ve come up with so far as to why that phrase exists.
If you read along last week about what pollinators are and why they need our help, this is follow-up information. We’ve already discussed that much of our food supply depends upon pollinators, and that humans are part of the reason that their numbers are declining. But take heart, because we can help fix this problem, and we don’t have to go any further than our own backyards. Naturally attracting pollinators can be as simple as avoiding pesticides and planting flowers.
What Not to Do
If you want your yard to be a safe haven for bees and butterflies, there are a few things that you aren’t going to be able to do. Sometimes, you’re going to have to do things the hard way. As easy as it is to reach for a bottle of concentrated, chemical pesticides for all of your bug problems, it’s just not that simple when you’re hoping to attract pollinators.
Avoid neonicotinoid pesticides
This is the most important thing you can do. Neonicotinoid pesticides are marketed and sold for at-home use, especially for ornamental lawn care. Be aware that the word “neonicotinoid” won’t be present on the label. It’s a class of pesticides, not a specific type. Watch out for these ingredients:
Of course, the simplest way to avoid neonictoniod pesticides is to avoid buying pesticides altogether. There are tons of ways to keep bugs away naturally that don’t involve harming pollinators, so hardcore chemicals can be avoided.
Don’t get rid of native plants
Native plants often have a symbiotic relationship with native pollinators, which is what you’re hoping to attract. The type of plants that are native to your area will vary geographically, but consider the effect you will have on native pollinators before you pull out a group of azaleas in favor of a bed of tulips.
Don’t expect cosmetic perfection
When you make your yard bug-friendly, it isn’t just a good habitat for pollinators. Yes, you can target and reduce harmful garden pests, but cosmetically, you are more likely to have some plant damage when you go the all-natural route. But really, is that much of a problem? I know that for myself, I would prefer to have a few leaves chewed off of my marigolds than to contribute to the decline of pollinators. Perfection is overrated, anyway. We’re going for a healthy ecosystem here, not a Yard of the Month award.
How to Attract Bees and Pollinators
After you’ve committed to keeping your yard a clean, healthy place for pollinators, there are only four more things you need to attract them in droves.
Food Sources and Host plants
Like most species, including humans, pollinators are drawn to places where they can find their next meal easily. While we may choose to live in a place where we can cultivate a vegetable garden or walk to the nearest market, pollinators are going to look for an area with lots of access to pollen and nectar. Generally speaking, pollinators are looking for flowers, and some flowers give easier access to pollen than others. Roses, for example, hide their pollen with rows of thick petals. They can still be pollinated, but they aren’t as attractive to pollinators as something like a daisy would be. Picture a daisy in your mind – soft petals around a large, yellow circle of pollen. That’s the kind of plant that draws in pollinators.
Aside from food sources, pollinators are also looking for host plants. Host plants are places where they lay their eggs. This is particularly important for butterflies, whose eggs hatch out caterpillars, which have different food needs than adult butterflies.
Here are a few plants that are especially attractive to pollinators, for either food sources or host plants:
- coneflowers (Echinacea)
There are a few other things to keep in mind while planting your pollinator garden. Consider the fact that pollinators don’t just eat in the spring and summer; they need to eat year-round. Find plants that bloom in the early spring and into the late fall. Also, try to plant a variety of sizes of plants. That will help you attract different pollinators, as some species prefer ground-level flowers and others prefer more height. Large clumps of flowers work well, too, because the pollinators won’t have to expend as much energy to get their fill of pollen. As with any garden, the spot you choose will need to be sunny and in good soil (and don’t forget to add your compost!).
Once you’ve provided a selection of pollen and nectar for your pollinators, it’ll be time to consider their other needs. Pollinators will need good, clean water to thrive. Meet this need in the following ways:
A damp sponge
This is probably the simplest method of providing water, but it will also require regular attention to make sure that it stays moist. Consider placing a few sponges at different heights throughout your garden.
The moderate height of a birdbath makes it appealing, as does the fact that it will hold several days’ worth of water. Place rocks of different heights in your birdbath to give pollinators a place to rest.
A small pan of water
There’s no need to go out and buy anything fancy. Use whatever shallow dishes or pans that you don’t often use, fill them up, and put them out amongst your flowers. Again, consider rocks as resting places.
A natural water supply
If your garden spot is naturally prone to puddles, just let them happen. Embrace the water source! Creeks, rivers, and ponds provide great water sources, too.
Think of your pollinator garden as an oasis. In order for the bees, butterflies, bats, and other bugs to feel at home, they need to be able to quench their thirst. They’ll thank you for it on hot summer days. Kind of. Well, they probably won’t actually thank you, but they’ll be grateful.
Finally, pollinators will need shelter. You can go two routes with providing shelter for pollinators. You can buy special nesting boxes for them, or you can keep and bring in objects from nature. Consider the following:
- Bat boxes (find them here)
- Native bee nesting boxes (find them here)
- Bee skeps (find them here)
- Old logs (I promised you rotten logs! Now you see why.)
- Tall, grassy areas
- Dead or dying tree branches
- Earth in which to tunnel (many native bee species live underground)
I know it seems like creating a habitat for pollinators requires a lot of work, but it’s actually simple. Pollinators’ needs are much like ours; they require food, water, shelter, and a non-toxic environment. Even if you aren’t in a position to plant a full pollinator garden, there are steps to take. Do you have a window where you can put a window box? Fill it up with pollinator-friendly plants and a wet sponge. A tiny window box can still be a much-needed rest-stop in a pollinator’s travels. Have you been considering cleaning up an area of your yard? Consider leaving it natural – dead logs and tall grass can be perfect homes for pollinators.
When it comes to helping pollinators, no step is too small and no step is too big. Do what you can, and take confidence in the fact that you’re helping to save pollinators, and our food supply – one little daisy at at a time.
Are you doing anything to attract bees and pollinators in your yard?
Share your experiences below!
References & Recommended Reading
- What is a Neonicotinoid?, from Texas A&M Extension
- Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees, on xerces.org
- Butterfly Host Plants, found on thebutterflysite.com
- Enhancing Nest Sites for Native Bee Crop Pollinators, from plants.usda.gov