Build a garden that’ll have pollinators buzzin’

Transform your outdoor space into a thriving pollinator destination.
For bees, colorful flowers are neon signs pointing to a rest stop. Krzysztof Niewolny / Unsplash

Pollinators are a vital component of our ecosystems. Approximately 80 percent of crops used for human consumption require animals like bees, butterflies, and even bats to transport pollen from one plant to another in order to reproduce. 

Unfortunately, pollinators face several challenges around the world. Honey bees currently suffer from colony collapse disorder, caused by habitat loss, pesticides, and disease. These negative factors also affect native bees. Additionally, butterflies like the monarch are seeing substantial population declines, too

Without pollinators, we’d be lost. No, worse: We’d be hungry. And, in time, our planet would be in serious danger of mass extinction. 

But research shows that people can help propagate pollinators by planting native species in their gardens. To do so, you’ll need to “think like a bee,” says Douglas Tallamy, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. 

Guiding principles

Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, emphasizes the importance of focusing gardens on bees. 

These little critters are more efficient pollinators than butterflies. They have tiny hairs that catch pollen and help transfer it from one plant to another. Bees also have a knack for targeting the right areas of a flower, rubbing pollen directly onto the sticky stigma, the female part of the flower. 

[Related: Humans need bumble bees—and they are disappearing faster than we thought]

Bee species can be broken down into two types: specialists and generalists. Specialists like to feed on specific kinds of plants, whereas generalists have a more diverse diet. When planning your garden, you should design it for specialist bees, Tallamy says. His logic is sound: Cater to the pickiest eaters, and the generalists will still show up to join in the feast. 

Sunflowers, for example, are one of the best plants for your garden, because they benefit many bee species. If you plant a bed of them, you will not only draw the appropriate specialist bees, but also generalists like bumble bees and honey bees. 

No matter what flowers you plant, their benefits will go beyond bees. At the end of the blooming season, sunflowers dry up, leaving seeds that attract various kinds of birds, bats, and mice in search of a nutritious meal. 

You should also consider maintaining a healthy and diverse population of plantlife so you have blooms throughout the year. Following the previous example, most sunflowers bloom mid-summer to early fall, so you would want to make sure you also had spring blooms, such as common yarrow or wild geranium in your garden. Maintaining flowers year-round (or as close as you can get) will ensure your pollinator garden reaches its fullest potential. 

[Related: A sting-free guide to becoming a DIY beekeeper]

Your garden should be more of a lush habitat for wildlife than a curated display for passersby, so don’t focus entirely on flowers, either. If you learn what plants your pollinators like to nest in or hang out around, your garden will be even more useful. A common misconception, for example, is that people should not plant milkweeds because, well, they are weeds.

But research shows that fewer milkweed plants is the main cause for the declining monarch butterfly population. These majestic insects prefer to lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, so planting more of these perennials is the one way you can truly help this species. 

Other weeds, such as dandelions and clover, will also attract pollinators to your garden during the spring and summer.

What to plant

If you’re lucky enough to have a 6-by-3-foot garden that gets six or more hours of sun daily, you can put your plants directly in the ground. If you don’t have the land, having even just one type of native plant on your apartment balcony can make a difference. 

[Related: You really can help save bees by planting wildflowers]

But before you hit your local nursery store and buy the first leafy, colorful beauty that catches your eye, it helps to know what plants are native to your geographical region. This way, you can cater to your local pollinators and prevent invasive species from taking over. 

Northeast region

This area includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and all the states northeast of those three. The primary recommendation from Canadian NGO Pollinator Partnership, is to plant foxglove beardtongue, Eastern red columbine, and wild geranium in the spring. In the summer, switch to bee balm, Joe Pye weed, and common milkweed, then transition to New England aster, gray goldenrod, and white wood aster in the fall. 

Intermountain region 

If you live in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, or Wyoming, this is for you. Plant common yarrow, Richardson’s geranium, and mountain bluebells in the spring; showy milkweed, blue flax, and tufted evening primrose in the summer; and aspen fleabane, blanketflower, and silvery lupine in the fall. 

Midwest region 

In the spring, residents of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin, should opt for Eastern columbine, squirrel corn, and foxglove beardtongue. In the summer, plant common milkweed, bee balm, and Joe Pye weed, followed by white wood aster, gray goldenrod, and New England aster in the fall. 

Northwest region

The region comprises Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Here it’s ideal to plant common yarrow, Oregon grape, and redflower currant in the spring. In the summer, you can grow showy/narrowleaf milkweed, Oregon sunshine, and mountain monardella; then Western coneflower, West coast goldenrod, and Douglas aster in the fall. 

If you can’t find one of the plants listed above at your local nursery, Pollinator Partnerships has region-specific garden cards that will give you secondary options for your local pollinators. 

For even more specific guidelines, you can also enter your zip code on their website and get comprehensive information about selecting plants for your area. 

Build your garden

Once you get your plants, it’s time to give them a new home. 

If you have the land, start with the basics. First, dig a hole twice as big as the pot the plant came in, and then remove the plant from the pot. You’ll need to loosen the roots, place it in the hole, and backfill with the soil you’ve dug up. Pack the soil, and water your new plant. Add mulch to the plot at a depth no greater than one inch. When mulching, make sure to avoid the stems. Piling up too much mulch around a stem can cause it to rot and make it more susceptible to pests.  

[Related: Pesticides are making bees dumber]

You may hand-weed the plot as needed, but resist the urge to use insecticides, pesticides, and fungicides once your garden blooms, as they might kill pollinators, too. Also, remember that growing anything takes time. Don’t be discouraged if your garden doesn’t look like your vision from the get-go—it may take a couple of years for it to fill in as desired. 

Every bit matters

As a responsible citizen of the world, we owe it to ourselves and the planet to use our land to its fullest potential. No matter its size, your garden and the pollinators it attracts will play an important role in maintaining a thriving local ecosystem. 

With your plant knowledge and gardening skills in hand, you can start thinking beyond gardens, too. You can volunteer at forest preserves to help plant native species, or you can educate people in your community about native pollinators and plants so they can do their part. 

Each of us has the power to contribute. If every city rooftop, windowsill, home garden, and empty plot of land were dedicated to ecological conservation, there’s no doubt it would create quite a buzz. 

Correction August 17, 2021, 10:34 hrs.: The main picture in this story depicted a pollinator fly instead of a bee. It has been changed.