Step outside on a sunny day, and you’ll probably see ants and butterflies. Step outside after a storm, and mosquitoes will attack you. Insects are a part of life—some more annoying than others.
While every insect plays a role in the ecosystem, you could argue that pollinators are the most important, but you’ve probably heard that by now. They’re responsible for the plants we use for food, materials, and enjoyment. If we don’t have pollinators, we don’t have plants!
Whether you have a garden or not, it’s important for humanity that everyone tries to keep pollinators alive and well.
- What Are Pollinators?
- What Do Pollinators Do?
- How to Keep Pollinators in Your Garden
- How to Control What Pollinates Your Garden
- Pollinator Conservation
- Pollinators and People Need Each Other
What Are Pollinators?
You could say the pollinators are our planet’s most overworked and underpaid critters (aside from humans). They pollinate plants by taking pollen from one flower to another as they eat nectar. Who said no snacking on the job?
Successful pollination produces fruit and seeds for humans and animals to eat. If a plant isn’t successfully pollinated, it won’t set fruit, and there won’t be seeds. The plant will essentially die without an “heir.” If every single plant of a species isn’t pollinated and they all die without fruit and seeds, that plant will become extinct.
Types of Pollinators
There are several categories of pollinators that are necessary for plants’ survival.
- Bees: Perhaps the most recognizable pollinator, bees feed on flower nectar and pollen. They’re typically regarded as the most important pollinator. Honeybees make honey, carpenter bees live in wood, and mason bees live in the ground. There are many types of bees; some aren’t even yellow and black.
- Birds: Birds that feed on nectar can pollinate, too! Hummingbirds, honeyeaters, and sunbirds are among many pollinating species. Some of these birds also eat insects, so they’re not considered as helpful as the bees.
- Butterflies: Butterflies don’t pollinate to the same degree as bees, but they’re still good at their job and are necessary for any garden! Unfortunately, butterflies are prone to endangerment since their caterpillar stage is so destructive to gardens. Many gardeners love to see butterflies but hate to see caterpillars.
- Mammals: Mammals and other vertebrates aren’t quite as efficient as insects and probably don’t play a huge role in suburban areas or cities. Even so, bats, lizards, mice, and even squirrels are capable of pollinating plants. Bats and other animals that feed on nectar will do so as they move between plants.
- Other insects: Insects that fly and land on plants are pollinators! Flies—even mosquitoes!—can pollinate, and so can ladybugs, moths, beetles, and wasps.
Some critters have specific diets and play a small role in pollination, but their specialization makes them even more important. If that animal dies, the plants will likely die if nothing else will pollinate them.
What Do Pollinators Do?
Pollinators do much more than pollinate, just as you probably do more than your job title says. Through pollination, life thrives here on planet earth!
They Feed Us
Pollinators are responsible for our food. Hand pollination is an option, but how effective can that be if you can’t spend all day in the garden? When your garden is full of bees and butterflies, the pollination process requires little to no effort from you—all you have to do is keep your plants alive!
They Keep the Environment Clean
When pollinators help plants produce fruit and keep plant species thriving, they contribute to keeping the environment clean. Plant roots prevent erosion and improve soil quality which helps the local ecosystem stay healthy. Plants are known for being able to cleanse the air (according to this NASA study), so keeping them around is crucial.
They Boost the Economy
It may leave a bad taste in your mouth to think of the monetary benefits of nature, but it’s true!
Farmers rely on their crops to make a living. Without pollinators, they wouldn’t be able to live and would have to find another line of work. The agriculture industry plays a significant role in the US economy. Without it, we wouldn’t have grocery stores or restaurants, leaving many people unemployed and many more hungry. If you like to dine out on the weekends or cook meals at home, thank your farmers and pollinators.
Pollinators also boost the local economy. If you like to buy fresh produce at local farmers’ markets, you wouldn’t be able to if your local farmers didn’t have bees and other bugs visiting their crops every day.
How to Keep Pollinators in Your Garden
We talked about what pollinators do and how they affect our lives, so let’s get into how you can keep them in your garden. If you want to grow your own produce or flowers and save seeds for next year, you’ll need some critter allies!
Grow Native Plants
Studies show that pollinators prefer native plants over non-native plants, so if you need help attracting bees and butterflies to your garden, choose native varieties.
Unfortunately, many native plants are often seen as weeds and are removed as soon as they pop up. Their weedy tendencies are only because they thrive in the local climate compared to non-natives. A native, drought-tolerant plant will continue growing and spreading during the driest part of the year, while plants that need moist soil will struggle.
Research which plants are native to your area and learn how to incorporate them into your garden. If you’re concerned about them taking over, consider growing them in flower beds away from your garden or in nearby containers.
Grow a Variety of Plants
You don’t have to stick to just native plants. Grow a variety of native and non-native to make your garden as attractive as possible. Choosing different species of plants will bring in a wider variety of insects. For example, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed flowers, so you can plant these to increase your chances of seeing them.
Discover what other picky eaters live in your area and grow the plants they like to eat. You can also do this to attract hummingbirds and other pollinating animals that live in your area.
Don’t Use Pesticides
This topic might as well be called “gardening politics” because of how polarizing it can be. Whether you’re comfortable using synthetic chemicals in your garden or not, pesticides harm pollinators. They’re less harmful when they’re dry, and you can time the application so it will be dry by the time the beneficial insects come out. Even so, you risk harming the pollinators that might land on sprayed leaves and flowers.
Pesticides and other synthetic chemicals (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers) make gardening easier, but they aren’t entirely safe for human consumption and can harm wildlife. Organic gardening omits synthetic chemicals and is safer for the environment and the people and animals interacting with your garden.
Provide Pollinator Housing
Critters need a place to live, too. If you want to attract pollinators, why not offer them free real estate?
The simplest form of housing is a garden. Pick a flower bed or corner of your yard to grow flowers intended for caterpillars and other insects to eat. Allow aphids to infiltrate this area to attract ladybugs. Let butterflies lay their eggs there. It will encourage them to stay in your yard but away from your veggies!
You can also provide housing for bees, birds, butterflies, and bats. These are wooden structures you hang or mount near flowers or your garden to attract these pollinators to live. You can buy them online or build them for a fun DIY project.
Provide Water for Your Pollinators
Everything needs water to live, so make water available near your garden or pollinator housing. The easiest way to do this is to fill a shallow tray with rocks and water. The insects can land on the rocks and drink water from the tray. You can also use bird baths to include bigger pollinators, but make sure it’s not too deep or that there are “landing pads” in various places so the small pollinators won’t fall in.
Stagnant water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. While they are pollinators, you may not want to create an infestation! Hot summer days should evaporate the water enough to prevent the mosquitoes from laying eggs, but you may need to change the water every day in cooler weather.
Intercropping is when you plant at least two plants close together. You can attract pollinators to your vegetable garden with this method by planting flowers near your produce. Marigolds are a popular choice because they’re known to repel pests, and nasturtium is used as a trap crop to draw aphids away from other plants.
Be sure to learn about companion planting before you use this method, as some plants don’t work well together.
How to Control What Pollinates Your Garden
You can’t really control nature, but you can encourage the pollinators you want and discourage the ones you don’t want.
Every pollinator has its place in nature, but humans are finicky creatures—we know what we like and don’t like! Moths are as important as butterflies, but anyone with mottephobia doesn’t want to see them. Carpenter bees are as important as honeybees, but they can be annoying when they start nesting in your wooden deck.
Here are a few ways you can passively attempt to control what enters your garden without causing any harm.
Plant for Specific Pollinators
Some pollinators have specific diets and won’t eat anything but one plant. If you want those pollinators in your garden, grow their favorite food.
Conversely, you can deter certain pollinators (pests) with specific plants. If you don’t want butterflies laying eggs in a specific part of your garden, try planting aromatic herbs known to keep them away. If you don’t want to repel them completely, grow what attracts them on the other side of your yard.
If you kill every caterpillar, you’ll eventually run out of butterflies. You can learn to coexist with unwanted-but-wanted pollinators by giving them an alternative option.
Tomato hornworms are bad news for gardeners, but they turn into moths that will pollinate your garden. (For some people, that’s probably still bad news!) These hornworms only eat plants in the nightshade family, including eggplants, potatoes, and peppers. Plant flowers in this family as an alternative, or have a designated “hornworm garden” so you can relocate them when you spot them in your garden.
Herbs are an easy way to offer alternatives because they grow quickly and can be grown in containers near your garden. Cabbage loopers, aphids, leafminers, and many other pests love parsley. Grow parsley near your garden, and you might encourage them to leave your garden alone. Or, you can evict and relocate them yourself.
Watch Your Garden Daily
You can’t attempt to control what happens in your garden if you aren’t aware of what’s happening. Check your garden in the morning, afternoon, and evening to look for pollinators and pests. Take notes of what insects you see and when you see them so you can remember next year and plan ahead.
You should also monitor your pollinator habitats if you have any. Take note of what butterflies are stopping in your butterfly garden or if the pollinators are using the water dishes you set out for them. Are the pollinator gardens so far away from your vegetable garden that the pollinators don’t venture out to them?
Be an active part of your garden and learn about the life living in it. Even if you don’t want to try to control it, knowing what is and isn’t working in your garden will help make next year’s decisions easier.
Not every pollinator needs to be saved, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to help out their population. Pollinators are necessary, whether you grow a garden or not. You’re just one person, but you can help the pollinators by making an effort to keep them alive and teaching others their importance.
Don’t Kill Pollinators
This one is obvious, but some of your decisions may negatively affect pollinators without you realizing it. Spraying harmful chemicals or removing every caterpillar you see can take its toll on pollinator populations. Consider moving them somewhere else or choosing a “sacrificial plant” to move pests to in your garden.
The simplest way to help out pollinators is to plant flowers! Poke a few seeds in the ground here and there or fill up a flower bed. Every flower counts and will provide pollinators with food and shelter.
Learn How to Identify Pollinators
Nature is full of friends and foes, so it’s important to know which ones you’re dealing with. You wouldn’t want to mistake a yellow jacket for a bee!
Spend time in your garden to see what kind of insects come to your garden. Learn how to identify them and decide if you want to encourage or discourage them. Plant more of what they like and provide water if you want them.
Caterpillars are destructive but turn into beautiful butterflies or moths when they grow up. Learn about what kind of caterpillars you have in your garden, and look up how common they are in your area. You might discover a not-so-common species that you can carefully watch and protect as they mature.
Many people are unaware of how important pollinators are or how many endangered species there are. The best way to spread the word is to teach your friends! Find graceful ways to express your concern about pollinator populations, pesticides, and habitat loss. Encourage your friends to grow flowers on their lawns and balconies.
Pollinators and People Need Each Other
Humans need pollinators to survive, and pollinators need humans to help them survive. Plant some flowers, build pollinator habitats, and allow the pollinators to thrive in your garden. Nature will thank your compassion with fruit, veggies, and flowers!
Kaleigh Brillon is a freelance writer specializing in web copy about gardening. If you need blog posts, product descriptions, newsletters, or anything else that can be written, Kaleigh can help you! View her Services page to learn more.