Learn How to Attract Pollinators Naturally

How To Attract Bees

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:

  • Imidacloprid
  • Thiamethoxam
  • Acetamiprid
  • Dinotefuran
  • Clothianidin

(Source 1, Source 2)

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 1

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:

  • daisies
  • coneflowers (Echinacea)
  • sunflowers
  • asters
  • rosemary
  • poppies
  • crocus
  • geraniums
  • milkweed
  • dill
  • parsley
  • fennel

(Source 3)

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!).

Water Sources

How To Attract Bees 2

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.

A birdbath

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.

Shelter

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:

(Source 4)

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!

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References & Recommended Reading

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Comments

  1. This all sounds like a wonderful oasis, I can already picture the butterflies and bees flying around. I just had a question about the water sources. Wouldn’t they attract mosquitos also? For some reason mosquitos love to eat me alive. Or is there a plant to grow that will naturally repel the mosquitos?

    • If you’re willing and able to empty out your water and refresh it regularly, mosquitoes shouldn’t be too much of a problem. There are several plants you can plant to detract them, too, including Citronella and Lemon Balm.

      • Thanks Emry, I’m in the process of buying my first house and I can’t wait! I will definitely try the lemon balm and citronella!

      • Lemon Balm, huh? I didn’t know about this. I have a gorgeous stand of it that keeps coming back every year. Now I know another use for it.

    • Re: Mosquitoes
      1. For some reason, mosquitoes l-o-v-e blood of a human who has eaten a banana, so DON’T eat one for two days previous to going in their territory.
      2. Plant wild bergamot. They don’t come near it. Rub your skin and clothing with the leaves to keep away those bugs.
      3. ~To repel mosquitoes, hold a lemon or orange in your hand, and squeeze it until oil appears on the fruit skin. Rub the oily fruit on your skin and clothing. Squeeze fruit again for more oil.

  2. One of the best flowers in my yard for bees in the fall is my live forever plants. the bees literally cover the blossoms at times.

  3. Just put out my bee box on Mother’s Day in West Central, MN at our cabin. And my Common MIlkweed transplants are waiting for the weather to cooperate so they can join my ‘native’ garden and my Garbage Garden. I made my Garbage Garden across the road. As I thinned out plants from the native garden I plopped them across the road. I just can’t throw any plant away. My Mom taught me that if you can’t share with a friend, at least spare the plant. They continue to thrive and the bees and birds visit regularly.

  4. My husband and I “share” our herb garden with the pollinators and helpful insects as well. If you grow oregano and allow it to flower the bees will love it. Last year we counted at least 5 different types of bees and other pollinators mining the oregano flowers every time we looked. We check the parsley and dill for butterfly caterpillars before we harvest and if there is a resident on the plant we make sure not to harm it and to leave enough for it to grow and mature. I also allow the edges of the yard to become a wilder area and have planted bee balm and milkweed there.

    We do not use any inorganic pesticides and severely limit the organic ones since most of them will kill helpful insects along with the bad ones. If you hand pick the “bad” bugs the survivors will attract the helpful insects that are looking for a meal.

  5. This article ran in our local paper. UC extension is celebrating 100 years of service this year. Volunteers recently kept track of the number and types of pollinators. Enjoy the article.

  6. That’s funny about the yard of the month. Our neighbors received that dubious distinction a few months ago, and we both agreed that we enjoy our wild, native yard to their professionally maintained one. However, someone on the landscape committee must agree with us, because we are the current yard of the month! I am sorry it wasn’t for last month, though, because our color has already begun to fade with the days getting hotter. We have no shortage of pollinators at any given time, and my husband loves to harvest the seeds to share with others to use in their yards.

  7. Great information & your timing is spot on for me! I probably won’t get to starting a bee hive this year, but I can throw down some wildflower seeds. Thanks for the reminder.

    We would like to build bat boxes to help with our insect population here. Do you have a DIY post to help making our own bat boxes out of excess wood?

  8. If you live in the south, try lantana. Butterflies love it and mosquitoes do not.