5 Tips For Creating A Garden That’s Friendly To Pollinators

Pollinators such as bees, birds, bugs and butterflies benefit from a thoughtfully arranged (and sometimes artfully neglected) garden landscape.

PHOTO: Kristina Mercedes Urquhart

There’s a lot of buzz about honeybees these days, but the lesser known (and equally feared) native pollinators are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to pollinating your North American garden; after all, honeybees aren’t native to the North American continent. Knowing this, the American gardener must consider several things when planting a “bee-friendly” garden, whether you keep bees yourself or not.

Here are the top tips for making the most of your space to support ailing bee populations (native bees are struggling, too) and bring pollinators to your garden for epic blooms and bountiful crop harvests.

1. Diversity Matters

This tip is easy to remember. Simply put, diversity in plant sources will bring a diversity of pollinators and other beneficial insects to your garden. Plan your outdoor space (not just your garden) to be as florastically varied as possible: Choose flowers of different sizes, types and colors for the best results. Plant edibles such as vegetables and fruit trees. Also plant flowering hedges and a variety of herbs—and allow them to flower as well. If you have the space, plant a wide variety of wildflowers in small patches of at least three or more plants

2. Keep It Colorful; Keep It Simple

If you’re having trouble identifying which plants will be fruitful for your hives or for local bees, try to diversify your color and simplify your flowers. In terms of color, different pollinators are attracted to different colors. If you successfully mix and match color of blooms, you’ll get a bigger range of bugs to your space. Flower shape matters too, though. Simple flowers are best to attract pollinators. These are ones with an open-form arrangement of petals (think of asters or cosmos). Complex and showy blossoms, whose petals are tightly packed, might make it harder for some insects—particularly honeybees—to reach inside to gather nectar.

3. Quantity Matters

If you’re planting particularly for honeybees, you need to make the visit to your garden worth their trip. A forager is most likely to return (and tell her sisters where to forage) if the forage is plentiful. Plant your flowers and herbs in clumps of several plants, in a minimum of 3 square feet of space—the more the better. Because a honeybee forager visits only one type of flower per outing from the hive, this ensures she and her sisters will get enough forage from that type of plant.

4. Choose Native Plants; Foster A Wild Spot

Debate rages about the benefits of native plant species for a non-native insect species such as the honeybee. As the North American landscape is crept over by invasive ornamentals, planted with the best of intentions, naturalists are increasingly confused by the blurry lines of what is best for everyone. That said, you can’t go wrong with planting native varieties. Natives are adapted to thrive in your specific region. They will offer the best food sources for your native bee populations as well as butterfly and moth caterpillar host plants. In the case of the endangered Monarch butterfly, planting its caterpillar native food plant, milkweed, is critical to supporting ailing populations of the beautiful orange butterfly. Natives also require much less maintenance and babying because they are so well adapted to the climate.

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In addition to native plantings, consider letting an area of your garden remain wild—completely untended, unmowed and unpruned or harvested. Wild areas like this provide important habitat and protective shelter for invertebrates as well as birds to rest and hide from predators in the warmer months and to hibernate in the winter.

5. Add A Water Feature

Water features are good for everyone—especially ponds that are left semi-wild. These aquatic areas support dragonflies and amphibians, and they offer honeybees a crucial source of fresh water, especially if there isn’t one for miles. Honeybees use the water to dilute honey to create just the right amount of moisture, as well as to cool off in the heat of summer. If you don’t have space for a pond or large water feature, consider putting out a small bird bath to double as a watering station for bees and a place for your feathered friends to cool off.

In most regions of North America, it’s rarely too late to plant flowering plants, trees or crops, and if it is, begin planning your space for next year. When pollinators have ample food sources, the benefits trickle up the food chain.

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