One of the most important garden-planning aspects is how to attract pollinators. Bees, butterflies, bats, moths, and hummingbirds are vital insect and animal allies, with good reason. Pollinators are animals that move pollen from a flower’s male anther to the female stigma to fertilize it. Seeds contain all the genetic information needed to create another plant, and seeds can only be produced when pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species.
In this guide, we’ll explain to you why pollinators are so important, and which flower species are most beneficial for your region.
Pollinators are Key to a Successful Garden
Pollinators are known as “keystone species” because they are species upon which others depend. They’re responsible for pollinating over 80% of the world’s flowering plants. This is why it’s so important to find the right plants to attract them to your garden. Not only are you ensuring a better harvest for your plants—you’re also taking care of nature’s garden helpers.
What is Pollination?
Pollination happens organically and is usually the result of an animal’s natural activity on a flower. The pollinator eats, sips nectar, or collects pollen from a plant for its own nutritional needs. While engaged in these activities, pollen grains attach themselves to the animal’s body.
The animal will visit another flower for the same reason. When it does, pollen might fall off its body onto this flower’s stigma. This results in successful flower fertilization. Sometimes insects sleep or get stuck inside a flower overnight when it closes on them. This could also lead to pollination.
In simple terms, without pollinators, humans, and wildlife would have very little food to eat. In addition, we wouldn’t get to enjoy all of the beautiful colors nature has to offer. The best thing you can do is to devote part of your land to create a pollinator garden.
Can I Just Leave it to Mother Nature?
The very simple answer is no. There are many factors that affect pollinators and their ability to fertilize flowers, and they often link back to human activity. Our human-dominated landscape and perfect lawn monocultures don’t support functioning ecosystems.
Any remaining isolated natural areas aren’t large enough enough to support wildlife. The good news is that many of these factors can be greatly improved by small individual steps.
Colony Collapse Disorder has lead to a honey bee epidemic in recent years. Scientists have attributed it to a combination of factors including fungus, virus, pesticides, habitat loss, and environmental stress. Bees are pollinators for about one-third of the plants we eat. This service has been valued at US$168 billion per year worldwide.
Also, humans have genetically engineered gorgeous flowers for our viewing pleasure. These often have double blooms, which lack nectar and pollen. This means they don’t create food for our pollinator friends.
If you have an abundant cutting garden filled with these types of fresh flowers, be sure you have a pollinator garden set up nearby as well.
Help By Creating a Pollinator Garden
The best way to help is to assemble a pollinator garden. If everyone plants nectar-rich flowers, we can ensure an endless buffet for our pollinators. If you don’t have much space, plant a few flowers in window boxes or patio containers for bursts of colorful blooms.
Create a garden with a variety of plants that bloom at various points in the season, from early spring to early fall. This ensures that there is always something blooming in your garden.
Plant them in clumps to lure pollinators in. Various pollinators have different preferences, so it’s good to grow different varieties. Bees, for example, prefer blue, purple, white, and yellow flowers. Butterflies are drawn to red, yellow, orange, and pink blooms.
Design an Oasis for Pollinator Species
Many need the warmth of the sun to keep their little bodies going. Provide rocks as warming and resting spots and shallow, slope-sided containers of water for drinking.
Don’t forget Nighttime Pollinators!
Moths and bats take the night shift when it comes to pollinating plants. So we have to take care of them too. Plant some night-blooming flowers such as moonflowers, evening primroses, and nicotiana.
For bats, cacti are a good choice. They bloom at night and produce large, fragrant flowers, and life-giving nectar. Tropical fruits like mango, banana, durian, guava, and cashew are also pollinated by bats.
How to Select the Best Flowers for Your Own Garden
The number one rule of thumb is to choose native flowering plants. Why? Because they’re adapted to your local climate and soil conditions. They’ve also evolved alongside local pollinators. Indigenous varieties are a better choice than invasive invaders, which can outnumber and choke out native plants.
Non-native plants may not provide enough nectar or pollen to sustain pollinators. They may even be inedible to certain species. That said, if you can’t do all native species, you can just tuck a few here and there. There are also several species that are grown worldwide.
All of these plants have benefits beyond being good for beneficial insects and birds. That said, we’re focusing on their pollinator garden attributes. Here is a list of a few specific regions and pollinator-attracting flower species for each.
These are some of the most common (and best) flowering species from across Europe. Many varieties can be found from the Scandinavian countries right down to the Mediterranean.
Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
Hawthorn flowers are highly scented. They’re also hermaphroditic, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within each flower for easy pollination.
Bell Heather (Erica cinerea)
Bell heather is a nectar-rich plant. The UK Insect Pollinators Initiative rated it in the top 5 for most nectar production per unit cover annually.
Common Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Fennel produces abundant nectar and pollen and is very attractive to solitary bees.
Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare)
In a study conducted by the University of Sussex, marjoram attracted 100 times as many insects as the least popular plant (by insect standards, that is).
These species grow well across the USA and Canada.
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Borage grows from June through October or the first frost, so it’s in bloom for a long time. Bumblebees and honeybees seem to find the nectar-rich flowers irresistible.
Milkweed (Asclepias spp.)
Monarch butterfly larvae appear to feed exclusively on Asclepias milkweeds in North America. They are perennial plants, meaning they re-grow year after year.
Coneflower (Rudbeckia spp.)
Their colorful flowers with raised central cones attract hummingbirds, butterflies, songbirds and other pollinators. The central part acts as a landing pad and it contains a lot of nectar.
If you want more, plantnative.org has a helpful guide of Native plant nurseries by state.
Although many European and North American species have been cultivated in Australia for years, your best bet for keeping indigenous pollinators happy is to feed them the flowers they evolved to drink from.
Flowering Gum (Corymbia ficifolia)
Flowering gum is a fabulous source of food for native bees with an abundance of spring flowers.
Pincushion Hakea (Hakea laurina)
Pincushion hakea is the favorites of stingless bees. They have tunning spidery flowers blooming between April and August.
Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Tea tree is a small tree or large bush with white, pink and red flowers that begin blooming in early summer.
Chances are you’re already familiar with many of these, as they’re often cultivated in botanical gardens. Many are also popular in the Southern USA, where the climate can support them.
Salvia is a must-have as it’s not specialized for a single pollinator. It’s generic, so its pollen is easily released by birds and bees of varying shapes and sizes.
Qantu (Cantua buxifolia)
The national flower of Peru is a hummingbird favorite, due to its flower shape and abundant nectar.
Ylang-Ylang (Cananga odorata)
An evergreen that blooms year-round. These flowers are used to scent Chanel No. 5 perfume, so you know the flowers are very fragrant and attractive. Ylang ylang blooms are pollinated by night moths. Therefore the most intensive fragrance is released from dusk until dawn.
Banana (Musa sapientum)
Banana trees flower sporadically year-round, but the main flowering period is from fall through winter.
Here are some flowering plants that thrive all over the world. Although they may not be native to your area, they’re a great addition to any pollinator garden. To learn more about species that are indigenous to your part of the world, read this helpful guide by The Royal Horticultural Society.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
One spike can have up to 90,000 flowers, making it very attractive to pollinators.
Bee balm (Monarda spp.)
Monarda comes in a variety of colors, and is named for the fact that it attracts bees like crazy. Hummingbirds are also highly attracted to it.
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
These are high in nectar, and flower all year round in warmer climates.
Pollinator Garden Do’s and Don’ts
Do be aware that most modern hybrids and those with “double blooms” are often created for human enjoyment. They’re fragrance-free, so they don’t attract pollinators and have no pollen or nectar to feed them.
Do add a hummingbird feeder to your yard. You can make your own homemade hummingbird nectar with a simple sugar water solution.
Do provide overripe fruit in your garden to attract butterflies. They also enjoy lightly salted water on a sponge. Use sea salt.
Do put your pollinator patch in a sunny spot. Many pollinators need the sun’s warmth to keep their bodies at a certain temperature. Otherwise, their muscles may stop functioning.
Don’t use harmful pesticides. They kill beneficial insects and animals.
Don’t clear out the deadwood. Hollow logs and tree stumps provide vital nesting areas and shelter for bees, wasps, and beetles.
Do you have some of these species already growing in your garden? If not, you now have several beneficial species to choose from. We can all help to nurture essential species by planting these in our yards. In turn, insects and birds will pollinate our fruits and vegetables, ensuring food security for generations to come.