You’ve probably heard that many of our important pollinators have been dying off and need our help. These nectar and pollen seeking creatures are vital to the growth of our crops and gardens.
The more I research bees and other pollinators, the more I realize how unbelievably complicated it all is. But, as backyard or balcony gardeners, we can do a lot to help our pollinators.
This beginner’s guide will cover the basics of garden pollinators and easy things you can do now to attract them to your garden and help them thrive.
- Pollinators in Your Garden
- Dos and Don’ts of Attracting Pollinators
- About Bees, Our Most Important Pollinators
- Attracting Bees to Your Garden
- Bee House Warnings and Tips
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Pollinators in Your Garden
Pollinators move pollen from flower to flower in your garden, helping fertilize fruit, veggies and plants. Some plants can’t produce any fruit without pollinators, while other plants can self-fertilize but benefit from a bigger and better yield thanks to pollinators.
There are a lot of “B” pollinators — bees, birds, butterflies, beetles and bats — as well as others like flies, moths and wasps. Even bigger animals like lizards and geckos can be pollinators.
They all help move pollen from male flowers to female flowers for fertilization. Many of them are just seeking the nectar and happen to transfer pollen in the process. But the bees are usually considered our most efficient pollinators, because they deliberately seek and transfer pollen to feed their offspring.
Nectar vs. Pollen: Nectar is a sugary liquid that pollinators use for energy. Pollen is the typically yellow, powdery substance that flowers produce for pollination. It has nutrition that bees use to feed their young.
Don’t forget about the wind. It can carry some types of lightweight pollen, like the kind that is all over my patio at the moment. My husband and his allergies can attest to the power of the wind as a pollinator.
However, the wind can’t carry all types of pollen, and as you can see it’s not that precise in directing pollen to the right place. My patio = WRONG PLACE.
For a beautiful, productive garden, you need animal pollinators like bees and butterflies. So how do you attract them?
Dos and Don’ts of Attracting Pollinators
You could spend a lifetime learning about the thousands of species of pollinators and their varying needs. But there are a few basic, easy things you can do now to attract a variety of beneficial pollinators.
Do Plant a Variety of Flowers
Different pollinators are attracted to different sizes, shapes and colors of flowers, and they actively seek food at different times throughout the year.
Plant a variety of flowering plants, shrubs and trees to get blooms from early spring through late fall, so your pollinators have an ongoing buffet of options.
Some pollinators have long tongues designed to suck nectar out of foxgloves, while others have shorter tongues or a smaller stature and need easy access to pollen, like from a simple daisy or coneflower.
With cities expanding and yards getting smaller, pollinators are getting hungrier. Lack of food sources has been a big killer of important pollinators. But even with a small yard or balcony, you can help by adding colorful flowers to feed your local nectar-hunters.
Milkweed for Monarchs: Some pollinators rely on specific plants to survive. For example, monarch butterflies will only lay eggs on milkweed. Learn more in this monarch gardening guide.
Above all, try to plant a lot of native flowers. They evolved alongside your native bees to rely on each other, and bees strongly prefer them.
Don’t Use Pesticides
Pesticides are another major killer of pollinators. Whenever possible, try to avoid using them in your yard, especially near your flower garden.
One good thing about pollinators is that many of them, like wasps and ladybugs, will eat the pests you’re trying to eliminate. So if you protect your pollinators, they can help keep the pests away naturally.
Take extra care to avoid products with neonicotinoids, an insecticide that harms bees.
Do Provide Bee and Bird Baths
Summers are getting longer and drier in many places. Now more than ever, bees, birds and other pollinators need backyard water sources to help get them through the hot months.
Use a shallow dish with some rocks as a bee bath, so the bees have somewhere safe to stand without drowning in the water. And make sure to regularly freshen up the water to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Don’t Over-Tidy Your Yard
I love this tip. One of the easiest things you can do to attract pollinators is nothing at all.
Don’t remove all the leaves. Don’t rake all the pinecones and needles away. Leave dead logs in the corner of your garden. These materials are helpful to bees and pollinators building their habitats.
Some people even suggest letting a few dandelions and clover flowers pop up in your yard. Pollinators love them!
Personally, I’m a neat freak and can’t stop pulling weeds, but the next time I miss one I’ll just say I’m helping the bees.
About Bees, Our Most Important Pollinators
Bees are usually considered our most important pollinators, because their legs are designed to collect pollen and they deliberately seek it out to feed their young.
Although some other non-bee pollinators make a big contribution too, bees are indisputably vital to crop pollination from major farms to your backyard garden.
So Many Bees! There are about 4,000 native bee species in the US and 20,000 worldwide.
Here are the basics you need to know about bees and your garden.
Bees Aren’t as Scary as You Might Think
To be honest, I am terrified of stinging creatures. Too many barefoot summers meant that I was stung a lot as a kid. And one time a wasp flew into a car window and stung my neck when I was just minding my business as an adult. Not cool.
I dipped my toes into the world of bees a few years ago when I put up a bee and butterfly house. I really just wanted the butterflies, and I figured I’d tolerate the bees. But after hosting them these last few seasons, I now realize bees aren’t as scary as I thought.
Bee Sting Facts
- Only female bees sting. The males don’t have stingers.
- Social bees can be aggressive to protect their colonies, but the solitary bees that are attracted to backyard bee houses are less aggressive and less likely to sting.
- Some types of bees are stingless, or aren’t able to penetrate human skin, or have almost painless stings more like mosquito bites.
Bees are friendly vegetarians that want to live in peace with you. They aren’t looking to sting humans unless they feel threatened.
The more I learn about them, the more I want to protect them and invite them to my yard, and that’s coming from someone who is terrified of stings.
Wasp vs. Bees: Bees evolved from wasps. The difference is that wasps are carnivores feeding on other insects, while bees enjoy a more peaceful lifestyle as vegetarians feeding on pollen and nectar.
Vulture bees in South America are the exception. Shudder.
Bees fall into two categories: social and solitary. Only about 10% of bees are social, including honey bees, bumble bees and stingless bees.
Social bees live in colonies that work together, and they are more likely to sting to protect their nests.
Honey bees get a lot of the attention as pollinators, and we sure do love their honey. But they aren’t native to the US, so they aren’t always the best at pollinating our local crops.
Honey Bees in North America: Europeans brought modern honey bees to North America in 1622. Technically we did have an ancient honey bee called Apis nearctica back in the Middle Miocene period, but it was long gone by 1622.
Often our native bees are more efficient at pollinating the crops we grow. Here’s an example from The Bee-Friendly Garden.
“It takes only 250 orchard mason bees to pollinate an acre of apples, compared to at least 20,000 honeybees.”The Bee-Friendly Garden
Native bees are vital, and many of them are solitary types.
A solitary bee mom builds her own nest for her own babies, without the cooperation of a colony of other bees. About 90% of bees fall into this category.
Some solitary types are miner bees. They dig tunnels underground to lay their eggs.
Others are cavity bees. They lay eggs in holes above ground. Carpenter bees drill their own holes into usually unpainted wood, while mason and leafcutter bees look for ready-made holes (“secondary cavities”), like an old beetle tunnel.
These secondary cavity bees are the kind that are attracted to bee houses, and they are gentle pollinators for your backyard.
Mason and leafcutter bees are typically only adults for about two to five weeks, depending on the species. They mate, and then the females begin stocking the nest.
They lay an egg and supply it with a nutritious ball of pollen, then seal it in its own cell. The process continues until the tunnel is full, and then they cap it off with an extra thick barrier to help protect the babies from predators, parasites and bad weather.
Mason bees use mud to create the cell barriers, and leafcutter bees use round pieces of leaves cut from your yard. I’d like to think these round holes in my hostas are from leafcutter bees, but I’ve only ever had mason bees in my bee house. So it was probably a pesky slug.
The eggs become larvae, then go into a pupae stage like butterflies, then emerge from the tunnels when the temperature wakes them up (usually the next year), and the process repeats.
All that work for just a few weeks as adult bees out in the world enjoying flowers…
Attracting Bees to Your Garden
Learning about the work bees do, as well as their struggles with dwindling food sources and increasing pesticides, really makes you feel for these bees.
In addition to the general suggestions for attracting pollinators mentioned above, you can seek out specific bee-friendly plants and add housing materials that bees need.
Plant Bee-Friendly Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Veggies
Bees see ultraviolet colors, so they especially love flowers in shades of blue, purple, yellow and white. Red is in grayscale for them, so even though this color is popular for hummingbirds and butterflies, it’s less popular among the bees.
You might also want to add plants for the specialist bees that will only feed on specific flowers. Squash bees, for example, need flowering squash like pumpkins and summer squash to survive.
Some bees need simple flowers with single-layer petals for easy access to pollen. A lot of complicated, multi-layered blooms (like your typical dahlia) could make it difficult for many bees to get the food they need.
Bees need both nectar and pollen. Some flowers have one or the other, or neither, and wouldn’t be good for bees.
Grouping Flowers for Bees: Bees typically like to gather pollen from just one type of plant per trip, so it helps if you mass the same type of plant together in at least three-square-foot clumps.
Of course, gardens are for people, too. You will probably want to keep your exotic ornamentals and multi-layered bloomers. But take stock of your yard and make sure you also have a fair amount of native flowering plants and simple blooms for your bee friends.
Hanging a bee house can also bring a lot of bees to your yard, but there are some caveats you need to know.
Bee House Warnings and Tips
I thought it was a set-it-and-forget-it operation. Just hang a bee house outside and they will figure it out. It’s nature.
But the reality is that hanging a bee house in the wrong spot and without proper maintenance can actually do more harm to the bees, as horrifyingly described in this article. If you don’t periodically clean and replace the nesting tunnels, then parasites and mites can build up and harm the bees.
Also, many bee houses available in stores don’t meet the needs of bees. Here are the general requirements for a backyard bee house.
Bee House Requirements
- Bee houses need an overhang roof to protect the nesting tunnels from the weather. Too much rain can wash away the protective caps that bees place on the ends of the tunnels.
- They need a solid back wall. Cavity bees place their female eggs in the backs of the tunnels for the best protection to promote survival and further procreation. The back of the house shouldn’t be open to the elements.
- They also need removable nesting tunnels that you can clean and replace to prevent harmful pests.
- The tunnels need to be the right size, generally about 6 inches long with inner diameters ranging from about 1/8-inch to 3/8-inch, depending on the species. A variety of options can attract different types. If the tunnels are too wide, it will be too much work for the bees to cap them. And if the tunnels are too short, they won’t provide enough space for the female eggs protected in the back, leading to fewer female bees.
- The tunnels need to be smooth and not splintered, and made of breathable material to prevent rot, like natural reeds as opposed to bamboo.
- Bee houses shouldn’t be massive hotels. They are for solitary bees that don’t live in large colonies. Putting too many of them close together can make them an easier target for predators. It’s better to place a few separate smaller bee houses around your yard.
- Placement is vital. Bees need the sun to warm them up in the morning so they can fly. In the northern hemisphere, bee houses generally should face south or southeast for morning sun exposure, in a stationary position not swinging in the wind. (Although in very hot climates they will probably need more shade.)
- Mason bees will only travel about 300 feet from their nests, so it’s important to have lots of flowering food sources and mud available nearby so they can stock their nests.
Some people also add chicken wire around the bee houses to help protect the bees from predators like squirrels.
Finally, bee houses need to be cleaned and replaced periodically. The best bee house landlords store the nesting tunnels over the winter in a cool, dry place, like a shed or garage, before releasing them in the spring. At that time they put fresh tunnels in the bee houses for next year’s brood.
Understanding Bees and Other Pollinators
Even if you’re not ready for the upkeep of a bee house, you can help so much just by adding the right plants to your garden and understanding the needs of the helpful pollinators in your backyard.
From the birds and butterflies to the beetles and bees — and even the wasps — your native pollinators need food, water and materials around your backyard to promote their survival.
You might also like to read more about the fascinating world of pollinators. These books were helpful to me.
I hope this guide helps you fill your yard with happy pollinators!