A Garden for Pollinators

About 80-90% of the species in the plant Kingdom are flowering plants. This means that in order to reproduce effectively (exchange genetic information to keep populations strong), they must be pollinated and produce fruit and seeds. Most of these plants (~80%) require animals for pollination. Flower type, shape, color, odor, nectar, and structure all help draw in a plant’s appropriate pollinator.


While this is a bee blog, honeybees are not the only pollinators we have and actually aren’t even the most important to plant for. Honeybees are native to Europe and Asia, but so are many of our flowering ornamentals and food plants so we do need them for pollination; they are generalists and can utilize a tremendous number of different flowers to harvest nectar and pollen.

That said, there are over 4,000 species of native bee in the United States and more than 450 just in Michigan. These bees can live in colonies (like bumble bees) or live solitary lives (like mason bees). These bees have evolved to utilize our native plants in a mutually beneficial way. Some are generalists but most species are specialists and only pollinate a couple of different types of flowers. In addition to bees, there are pollinators such as butterflies, hummingbirds and many more. FUN FACT: Worldwide, bats are important pollinators for desert cacti, bananas, and many rainforest plants – Michigan bats are all insectivores and don’t have a role in pollination here.

Native pollinators often struggle for appropriate food because of our tendency to grow turf grass in our yards and monoculture crops on our farms. Home gardeners can help increase the available food for native pollinators by strategically planting their gardens with some simple things in mind.

  • A wide variety of flower types will help ensure food availability for different pollinators.
  • Planting flowers that bloom at different times of the season, striving to have something blooming all the time, will help prevent times when no food is available.
  • If you don’t have the resources or motivation to establish flowering plants for the whole growing season, what really helps is to focus on the early spring and late summer/early fall when very little forage is available to our pollinators. Suggestions later in this post.
  • While they can be a bit more costly, native plants are by far the most beneficial to these pollinators, they are adapted to our growing conditions so need less maintenance and by selecting native perennials, they can reseed themselves and provide years of benefit to your garden and pollinators. Don’t confuse ‘wildflower’ seed packets as ‘native’ seeds. Often these packets contain a mix of seeds not native to your area and most are only annuals.  
  • Hybrid varieties have been bred for their appearance (for people) and tend to not have much nectar and pollen, so are of less benefit to pollinators.
  • Vegetable, herb and fruit plants are great for pollinators AND people, so don’t forget that they may have a place in your landscape as well. (Fun Fact: Carpenter bees and bumble bees ‘buzz’ pollinate tomatoes. This means that they vibrate their bodies to shake the pollen out of the flowers; honeybees cannot do this. While tomatoes CAN rely on wind pollination, buzz pollination results in larger tomatoes and higher yield.
  • If you are looking to attract a certain type of pollinator, you will have to research what flower shape and colors it is most drawing to.
  • Finally, avoid using pesticides in your garden and yard whenever possible. In addition to treating for your targeted pest, these can have a negative impact on the very pollinators you are attempting to attract. The effect to pesticide exposure can range from death to a subtler but just as serious impact of reducing their ability to forage for food or reproduce due to impairment.

For suggestions of plants that might be good additions to your garden for pollinators I spoke with Elly Maxwell, Dow Gardens Entomologist and curator of our pollinator garden. Her suggestions included:

  • Early blooming: spring witch hazel, hellebores, and early spring bulbs like crocus and snowdrops.
  • Easy garden center finds – Every year in the butterfly display, we use zinnias and marigolds and the butterflies LOVE them as nectar sources.
  • Summertime: Butterfly bush is a great nectar source for lots of pollinators including the hummingbird moth. (read more about this mysterious creature here) – https://www.farmersalmanac.com/hummingbird-moth-32556
  • Host plants for butterflies: there are MANY species of milkweed that are good nectar sources for many pollinators.
  • More blooms through the season including Fall: Salvia – hummingbirds cannot resist these plants. Some varieties will bloom late spring – early summer some will bloom in the fall. If you cut back the spent flowers of the early varieties after they are done blooming, they will usually rebloom into the fall.

Biodiversity of our natural environment relies on pollinators as does the variety of foods we eat. Would we starve without insect pollinators? Maybe not, but our variety and quality of foods would be diminished and our quality of life would surely suffer. Consider planting a few things in your yard or even container garden to help pollinators this summer.