Creating Pollinator-Friendly Gardens

Make sure to feed certain insects and birds through the seasons to ensure the success of your fruits and vegetables.

There is always something in bloom in a pollinator-friendly garden. Planting large patches of each plant, like these daylilies and purple coneflowers,makes foraging easier for the pollinators at work in your yard.
(Photography by Michael Nerrie)

There is quite a lot of buzz about the decline of honeybees, but other pollinators—including native bees, flies, moths, butterflies and even hummingbirds—are struggling as well. Not only necessary for the success of most of our fruit and vegetable crops, native pollinators are also essential for the survival of many types of plants. “We need to think beyond food to native plants and the entire ecosystem,” says Dr. Cathy Neal of the University of New Hampshire (UNH). “Eight-five percent of land plants need pollination to complete their lifecycle.” Unfortunately, factors—such as habitat loss, pesticide use, and diseases—are taking a toll on native pollinators.

Bee friendly

According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which is based in Portland, Oregon, there are three important things you can do to make your garden more welcoming to pollinating insects:

  1. Grow nectar- and pollen-rich plants that provide food for pollinators’ larvae.
  2. Provide water, shelter and nest sites.
  3. Avoid exposing pollinators to pesticides.

If the idea of attracting more bees to your yard seems crazy, especially if you are allergic to bee stings, do not fear. These industrious pollinators rarely sting, and when they do, it’s in self-defense. Bees are too busy gathering the pollen and nectar they need to survive to pick a fight with you.

Natives: Beautiful and beneficial

Creating a habitat that draws native pollinators to your garden is easy. Because native insects have co-evolved with our native plants, local wildflowers will draw pollinators to your yard. Neal has been evaluating native plants and cultivars for more than ten years to determine the best plants to support native pollinators. “It is important to have flowers available from early spring through fall,” Neal says.

She has developed wildflower mixes specific to the Northeast for farmers and other landowners to use in establishing wildflower meadows that will draw native pollinators to nearby crops as well as sustain the pollinators throughout the season. Some of the flowers include golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), wild columbine, wild lupine and foxglove for early bloom. Among the many good midseason flowers are anise hyssop, black-eyed Susan, coneflower, milkweed, bergamot, coreopsis and cardinal flower. New England asters, brown-eyed Susan, ironweed, goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, and closed or bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) are recommended to feed the bees until frost, as they try to provision their winter nests.

Plant a diversity

Although it seems logical that native pollinators prefer native plants, there are plenty of non-natives that pollinators can make good use of. “Bees can’t tell if a plant is native or not. For example, red and white clover are not native, but they attract a large number of bees,” Neal says. “The most effective pollinators are generalists. They will forage on a lot of different plants.”

Spring-flowering bulbs may be the first pollen and nectar source. Many shrubs and trees, both native and non-native, provide significant sources of pollen and nectar—even though they aren’t often thought of as bee plants. Azaleas, pussy willows, winterberry, viburnum, blueberries, buttonbush and witch hazel are a few of the shrubs you may already have growing in your yard that bees and butterflies enjoy. Wild cherries, crabapple, red and sugar maples, hawthorn, mountain ash, and serviceberry are blossoming trees that can provide pollen and nectar; some also act as host plants for butterfly larvae. Some annuals—including alyssum, cleome, zinnias, sunflowers, salvia and verbena—attract pollinators as well but should not make up the bulk of your pollinator garden. “Perennials have more high-quality nectar and pollen,” Neal says, “so think carefully about annuals.”

Many of the culinary and medicinal herbs that people find useful can do double-duty by attracting native pollinators and providing them with nourishment too. Once common herbs—such as rosemary, lavender, dill, mint, oregano, basil, chives, calendula and borage—flower, they are excellent for drawing in pollinators. “Intersperse these herbs in your vegetable garden to attract pollinators to it,” Neal says.

When shopping for plants, Neal advises looking for those close to the original species; many cultivars have lost the fragrance, shape, or pollen and nectar content the pollinators need. “Be cautious with cultivars,” Neal says. “Try to think about what a bee may be looking for. Some cultivars have lost the qualities bees make use of, so the safest thing to do is to stick close to the original flower form.”

An American painted lady butterfly and common Eastern bumblebee share the wealth of pollen on a coneflower. To keep your pollinators safe, don’t resort to chemicals to handle destructive insects, such as this party-crashing Japanese beetle.
(Photography by Michael Nerrie)

Home sweet home

Most native bees nest underground, so it is important to have some open areas and bare ground showing. Bumblebees often make their homes in abandoned mouse and vole tunnels while others prefer piles of rocks. Small bees may fly only a few hundred yards from their nest when foraging; while large bees, such as bumblebees, will travel a mile or more in search of food. “Small bees nest near a food source,” Neal says. The squash bee will nest right underneath your squash plants if there is a gap in the mulch. Other bees nest in small tunnels or holes in trees and in pithy or hollow plant stems.

Don’t hurry to rake leaves and clean up the garden in fall. Let some plants stand until spring to provide nesting spots. “Start small,” Neal says. “Cut back on mulch for bees that nest in bare ground and leave hollow stems for bees that nest in them.”

Safe haven

The most important pollinator-friendly thing you can do is to stop using toxic pesticides in your garden. “While some insecticides are directly toxic to bees, others—such as those in a class called neonicotinoids—may cause chronic behavioral or reproductive problems in bees,” Neal says. “Some plants in the garden center may have been treated with these systemic insecticides, which can last for many months and make the entire plant toxic to insects that feed on it. Pesticide residue from neonicotinoids has been found in pollen and nectar of bedding plants.”

Look for pesticide-free, locally grown, native plants when shopping at nurseries this spring, and choose cultural or mechanical methods for controlling pests that might infest your garden plants.

If you plant it, they will come

Even a tiny backyard plot can support local pollinators. “Your yard, no matter how small, can make a difference,” says Hilary Chapman, education specialist at the New Hampshire Audubon Society. At the McLane Center in Concord, the New Hampshire Audubon has planted three demonstration gardens for pollinators. “Our hope is that the gardens will not only be a place for visitors to enjoy the beauty and peace of the outdoors when visiting our center, but also a place to see examples of native plants and landscaping for pollinators that can be replicated in their own back yards,” Chapman says.

Beth Dermody, landscape architect with Allen & Major Associates of Manchester, was called on to design a new butterfly garden, mixed pollinator garden and a hummingbird garden. “They had a lot of pollinator plants in their gardens already—such as black-eyed Susan and cardinal flower—that we were able to keep,” Dermody says. With the help of Olkonen Earthscapes of Hopkinton, some existing trees were relocated and a stone path was built to encourage visitors to walk into the garden. New seating was also added. “It made for better circulation. Now people can get into the garden and sit there and observe what’s happening,” Dermody says.

A metal arbor planted with native honeysuckle was installed as a focal point in the mixed pollinator garden. Many more nectar and pollen plants—including coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)—were added to the garden for pollinators to feed on. Little blue stem (Schizachyrium)—a native grass with hollow stems that provide nesting spots and over-wintering sites—was incorporated into the plan.

Dermody made sure there were plenty of host plants providing larval food for newly hatched caterpillars. “The monarch butterfly caterpillar likes the milkweed, and the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar likes the spicebush (Lindera benzoin) that the Audubon already had in the garden,” she says.

A full-color pamphlet provides the exact layout of the plants in the three gardens so homeowners can use it as a guide in planning their own gardens. “Visitors can use our garden brochure to identify and record the plants they’d like to look for at their local nursery,” Chapman says.

The newly expanded and enhanced pollinator garden was made possible by a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service New England Field Office. “Because of the decline of pollinators and their importance in our world, pollinator conservation is a high priority for the service,” Chapman says. Lots of volunteers helped with planting the garden last fall, and this spring, it will start to bloom. “One pollinator, the rusty patched bumblebee, is on the endangered species list,” Dermody says. “This bumblebee is one of many that can be tracked on a new app called Beecology, and hopefully, there will be some sightings in the new gardens.”

Although you can visit the garden any time—the center is open from dawn to dusk—a grand opening celebration is planned for June 15 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. “It will be a family event with a variety of activities, music and food at the beginning of Pollinator Week, June 15-23,” Chapman says.

Backyard stewards

The Beecology app was created by researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) as a way to gather information about bumblebees and the plants they are visiting. It gives the backyard gardener the ability to identify the species of bumblebee and species of plant it was visiting, and records the location, date and time of the bee-plant interaction. This crowd-sourced data will be used in ongoing research at WPI concerning the rapid decline of many native bumblebees in our area. At the McLane Center, citizen scientists will be working to keep track of the bumblebees in the garden and teaching others how to use the app in their yards.

“The interest in helping pollinators has been astounding,” Neal says. “There are literally hundreds of pollinator gardens and habitats that have been installed in New Hampshire in the last few years.”

You can turn your yard into a productive pollinator habitat by supplementing your existing garden with pollen- and nectar-rich flowers and larval host plants. Each plant you include in your garden enriches the local food web. Show your support for the protection of pollinators by joining the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. You can register your pollinator garden with them through the Pollinator Partnership at

The demonstration gardens at the New Hampshire Audubon McLane Center in Concord—designed by landscape architect Beth Dermody, of Allen & Major Associates, Inc. in Manchester—are a great place to research plant combinations to add to your pollinator-friendly landscape. Plants are well marked, and the gardens are open from dawn to dusk.


Categories: Gardening & Landscape