There is much concern about the current well-being of busy daytime pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, as well those that do their work at night such as bats and moths, given their crucial role in our natural world. They are important because they pollinate—or fertilize—flowering plants, accounting for more than one-third of all food crops worldwide, allowing the plants to reproduce by setting seeds. Over 90% of plants cannot reproduce on their own and need pollinators to propagate.
Pollinators’ numbers have been dropping at an alarming rate during the course of the last decade or more, though it’s not known exactly why. Their plight has been attributed to various causes, including declining food supply and loss of habitat—which is where gardeners can help through their landscaping choices. Even if you don’t have a big yard or space where you can plant a garden, container planting can really help.
Just in case you weren’t paying close attention in science class when the topic of pollination (remember the “Birds & the Bees” talk?) was covered, we include a really brief tutorial to refresh your memory and help inform your efforts. Pollination involves transferring sticky pollen grains from where they’re produced in the flower’s male stamen to the flower’s female pistil where it germinates, ultimately becoming seeds or fruit.
In most cases, pollinators do the job of transferring the pollen from one plant to another in the course of drinking the flower’s nectar for sustenance. The pollen sticks to them as they feed and is spread as they move from plant to plant.
Gardeners can support winged pollinators by planting flowers that bloom successively throughout the entire growing season so they always have something to eat. It’s important to understand which flowers are the most attractive to specific pollinators; experts have discovered that certain flowering plants have evolved over time—developing showy blooms and bold fragrances—for just that purpose. It’s important that you seek out old-fashioned varieties of flowering plants because they generally produce more nectar than modern hybrids and cultivars. In addition, you can prolong the flowering period by ensuring the plants’ optimal health through deadheading, mulching and regular watering.
An important issue to keep in mind when you’re planning your garden or containers: many bedding plants available at your local nursery, including double flowering plants provide little or no nourishment for pollinators. However, there are good alternatives such as zinnias and cosmos, for example, that can provide a spectacular splash of color in a border while they sustain birds, bees and butterflies.
In addition to furnishing the pollinators with a source of sustenance, it’s important to provide them with a user-friendly habitat, including shelter from predators and nasty weather, as well as overwintering and nesting sites.
By the way, not all pollination occurs via winged pollinators; about 20 percent of flowering plants, including many trees and grasses, are wind-pollinated. These plants—the culprits behind your seasonal pollen allergies—have to produce a lot of pollen to ensure a critical amount reaches their target. They typically don’t have the showy, fragrant flowers needed to attract insect and animal pollinators.
Bees are familiar pollinators whose current endangered status has been widely publicized. They are attracted to plants with open, flat tubular flowers with a lot of pollen and nectar. Experts believe that flowers with particular scents and bright colors, such as blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow (though not red, which they cannot see) entice the bees. Very early season flowering plants grown from bulbs, such as Crocus and Snowdrop are really important for bees weakened by winter hibernation. When it warms up, here are a few good choices of flowering plants that attract bees, though there are many more (note that we offer various Bird & Butterfly Attracting Seed Mixes, along with these individual seed packets):
Black Eyed Susan
Flowers to Attract Butterflies
Butterflies travel long distances and, thus, are important pollinators because they can cover a lot of ground, though they collect less pollen than bees. Experts say they have excellent sight, perceiving colors better than bees and even humans.They favor clusters of flowers with flat open heads—which they use as a perch—in bright colors such as yellow, orange and red. Similar to bees and birds, they pollinate during the day while flowers are open.
Most butterfly-attracting flowering plants attract other winged pollinators, as well.
Here are a few of their favorites:
Carpet of Snow Alyssum
If you have ever watched Hummingbirds in action, you can appreciate that they must expend a lot of energy in their constant state of high speed motion, quickly moving from flower to flower. Their ability to move in that manner is related to their high metabolism—one of the highest among warm-blooded animals—which must be supported by frequent feeding. Their voracious appetites—they drink up to two times their body weight per day—makes them important pollinators.
Unlike bees, hummingbirds are not attracted by smell, though they are attracted to brightly colored, tubular, nectar-rich flowers. They seem to favor red flowers, in particular. Here are some good choices:
Other Daylight Pollinators
Flies and beetles, which most of us tend to regard as pests, have their good side: they are also important daylight pollinators, ensuring, for example, that our beloved magnolia trees propagate.
When the pollinators described above retire for the evening, their important nocturnal associates, such as moths and bats, take over. Moths, relatives of butterflies, rely on their well-developed sense of smell to find strongly perfumed pale flowers to feed on at night. Similarly, bats seek the same conspicuous sorts of flowering plants as moths, given their limited vision. Bats do their good work as pollinators in tropical and desert climates. Over 300 types of fruit depend on bats for pollination, including bananas, peaches, and mangoes. Tequila drinkers might be interested to learn that the agave plant is also pollinated by bats.
Landscaping with Flowers - the Bottom Line
Most people grow flowers because they’re pretty and fragrant, and they want to brighten the landscape; they’re not necessarily thinking about attracting pollinators. The good news is that both flowering plants and pollinators have evolved to find each other, so, even if that’s not your intention when you plant your garden, hopefully, the pollinators will show up anyway. Armed with a little knowledge, you can tweak your garden, optimizing it to attract even more.