Wildlife

5 Simple Tips to Turn Your Yard Into Pollinator Paradise

July 20, 2015

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Bumble bee on New England Aster in Nebraska. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

When I stepped outside this morning, our yard was abuzz – literally – with activity. Bumble bees, wasps, butterflies and moths hovered over the plentiful flowers. Pollinator paradise.

Summer is the time of plenty for native pollinators. And they’re binging.

But creating pollinator habitat in your yard or garden means more than summer blooms.

Think of summer as the pollinator’s Thansksgiving dinner. There’s lots of food, easily accessible.

But also consider this: When you sit down to a holiday meal with all the fixings, you might be so stuffed you can’t think of food. You might even say “I’ll never eat again!”

The next day comes, though, and you do indeed eat again. Even multiple plates of turkey and the fixings are not enough to fuel you for a year. It’s the same with bumble bees and other pollinators: Summer flowers are great, but they are not enough to sustain healthy pollinator populations.

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to create a pollinator paradise. This is a conservation initiative where you can create important habitat with just a small strip of plants in your backyard or garden or back porch (even one pot of flowering plants can create vital habitat).

How do you ensure that pollinators have healthy food, a place to nest and livable conditions?

Here are five tips to get you started, with thanks to The Xerces Society, an organization devoted to invertebrate conservation that has much more incredibly useful information on creating pollinator habitat in yards, farms, roadsides and even golf courses.

  1. Build it and they will come.

    A soldier beetle visits habitat restored by the Conservancy in Nebraska. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

    If you plant pollinator-friendly plants, the pollinators will find it. Really. It’s that simple.

    Conservationists often speak about small fragments of habitat as a bad thing. But a fragment of your backyard devoted to pollinator habitat can make a huge difference for conservation. That’s why the Xerces Society has a goal of one million pollinator-friendly yards across the United States – one million little bits of habitat add up to a lot of ecosystem services.

    OK, so you are on board with devoting a corner of your yard to pollinator-friendly plants. What do you plant?

  2. Create an all-season buffet.

    A pollinator garden. Photo © London Permaculture/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

    When you begin planting, the key is to plant a diversity of plants that flower at different times of year. You are creating a season-long feast rather than requiring insects to live on one Thanksgiving banquet.

    How do you know what to plant? The Xerces Society is your friend. Its web site has a guide to the best plants pollinators in your geographic region.

    Right now, the bumble bees and butterflies are easiest to notice, but don’t discount the importance of early-season flowers.

    My wife Jennifer, who works on pollinator conservation for the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, keeps close track of when of the pollinating insects that visit our Idaho yard. This year, she recorded the first bumble bee on March 12 – a hungry and eager visitor to our early-season blooms.

    In early March, food is hard to come by for a bumble bee. Having a variety of flowers ensures these creatures can make it through the year.

  3. Grin and bare it. (The soil, that is).

    A bee or wasp digs a burrow in loose soil. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

    You might think that bare ground has very low value as wildlife habitat. And you’d be wrong.

    We often associate bee nests with hives. About 70 percent of native bees, however, nest in the ground. They dig little burrows that are used for rearing their young. Leaving a bare spot of earth near your pollinator garden can take care of most of the bee’s life needs in a small area.

    This is important: Many native bee species do not move very far. Bumble bees can cover longer distances (up to two miles). Many species only travel a few hundred feet or less.

  4. Think beyond the honey bee.

    Melissodes bee on sunflower. There are more than 4,000 native bee species in North America. Photo: © Chris Helzer/TNC

    In the popular media, pollinator conservation is all about honey bees. While the honey bee – and its sweet product – is easy to love, it is only one on a large list of pollinating insects.

    And it is not the most effective.

    Whoever coined the phrase “busy as a bee” may not have meant the honey bee. The honey bee is rather picky and inefficient compared to other species. It’s also not native.

    There are some 4,000 native bee species in North America – a veritable pollinating army. Add to that pollinating wasps, butterflies, moths, birds, bats and more. So when you’re thinking pollinator habitat, go beyond the honey bee.

  5. Lay off the spray.

    Photo © greensefa/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

    In 2013, a parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon was littered with 50,000 dead bumble bees.

    The cause? A pesticide known as a neonicotinoid, legal to use but deadly for insects – including native pollinators.

    The bumble bee die-offs have continued, including hundreds found dead in Portland in June.

    These uses of neonicotinoids are not protecting agricultural crops – they’re used purely for cosmetic purposes around yards and residential developments. Even if you spray your yard but not your pollinator habitat, the pesticides can drift and kill feeding or nesting bees.

    The Xerces Society believes this simple act – not spraying – is one of the biggest things you can do to help pollinators.

    These insects provide millions of dollars in ecosystem services each year by pollinating agricultural crops, and are a key component of wildlife ecosystems.

    Open up the season-long buffet line, and soon you’ll have a yard buzzing with bees and butterflies.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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36 comments

  1. Good article. I clicked on the Xerces Society link for the best plants for pollinators by geographic region, but was disappointed that there wasn’t anything listed for the intermountain west region (I live in Idaho).

  2. How is this happening? Another disappointed Idahoan ready to replant!

  3. Here is a link the the Mountain region resources from Xerces.

    http://www.xerces.org/pollinators-mountain-region/

    Depending on where in Idaho you live, you would be interested in either the list for Inland Northwest or the list for Intermountain West. Although Southwest Idaho is not specified, it seems to me that many parts of Southwest Idaho would fall into the Inland Northwest category.

  4. I have lots of plants for pollinators: many buddleia bushes, milkweed, lantana, petunias, and others. We have bumble bees to the tiny, ground-living ones, wasps and hornets, and butterflies. But what else can I put out for the winter months, as all the above plants die down.

    1. Cheryl, check out the Xerces Society and NRCS resources, linked to in the story above, and also in some of the comments here. The Xerces Society also has books that are quite good.

  5. Unfortunately, virtually all Ohio cities and villages have “weed laws” which specifically prohibit the growing or maintenance of grasses or “weeds” (including native herbaceous species) taller than a few inches. Many of those ordinances specifically prohibit “milkweeds.”

    The Ohio Prairie Association is beginning an effort to offer model city ordinance language that, if enacted, will specifically allow the growing of prairie and pollinator landscape elements for appropriate conservation or aesthetic purposes. Until urban weed laws are amended, the growing of native prairie or pollinator-support vegetation is illegal.

    1. That is indeed frustrating, John, and a real issue with many city ordinances as well as homeowner association rules.

      When we tore out our front yard, our neighbors thought we were crazy. Now everyone comments on how beautiful it is — blooming wildflowers, buzzing hummingbirds, lizards and of course plenty of pollinators.

      It takes some education. A native plant yard does not have to look like a weedy mess. It really can, and should, be much more beautiful than a monoculture of grass.

      1. “Weed ordinances” are a problem in suburban counties as well. The VA Native Plant Society was delighted to support a change in the Henrico Co weed ordinance last summer to incr. ht to 18″, allow buffers between neighbors & “naturalized” areas. A landowner who experienced an unannounced bush-hogging of 5 A. of planted pines & meadow flowers under recommendation of NRCS, State Forestry, etc. triggered the public furor that led to changes. The planning office is supportive of using native species in landscaping around new county bldgs. Among other things, the Bd. of Supervisors member from my district thanked me for introducing him to a new term: biodiversity! There’s a great need for education of our administrators and developers.

      2. What is the best way to get rid of the lawn. We have burmuda grass which is hard to kill.

  6. I may have missed it but cannot find the Xerces link for Florida plants … shows the Southeast and every state but Florida … I have several pollinators visiting already but am always looking for sustainable plants to keep them coming.

  7. I have been very disappointed this year not to have any honey bees in my yard-flies were my main pollinator for many weeks-we do have many bumblebees-but even they waited for the bee balm-there are no monarchs and we used to have many on the parsley and milkweed. We have a very friendly bird, insect and bear friendly yard with no insecticides but it is disappionting to see the change year by year.

  8. Short of spraying, how can I discourage wasps from nesting on my porches? I try to do the right thing with wildlife but the wasps can be quite aggressive and I’d much rather they be out in the meadow than on my porches.

    1. I have the same problem; I was stung by a wasp when younger and have been terrified of them ever since, as the wasps in my area are aggressive, with hair-trigger tempers (the one that stung me years ago did so because my hair brushed against it!) and very painful stings! I did some research though, a it seems that there are some plants which despite flowering, repel insects, including Society Garlic and Feverfew – the latter produce a cute, “bachelors button” daisy- like flower that wasps do not like at all. So we’re considering keeping them away from the front porch by planting Feverfews in the attached front planter, and reserving the backyard for our “pollinators paradise” 🙂

  9. Lots of bees in the Joe Pye Weed, black eyed Susan , and other flowers in my Silver Soring MD yard. No sprays here.

  10. Gifted my brother 2 bat houses.

    Gave 2 more to my parents AND a Bee House made of bamboo. Have bee-happy flowers in several different gardens with part shade, full-shade, part sun and full on sun…Have a “water bath” with stones in it so the pollinator’s can land and rink without drowning.

    Have hummingbird feeders out, separately…

    1. We NEVER use poison! A mixture of hot pepper with vinegar, diluted…human hair and marigolds usually does the trick!

  11. I don’t have a yard, and thus cannot plant flowers and shrubs in the usual manner. But I do have a shady deck in the back (north) and a sunny porch in the front (south). I would be glad to create a container garden if it would help out pollinators, but I need some instruction as to what to plant, how to plant, and when to move the containers from front to back and vice versa. Can anyone point me to resources to do this?

    Thanks,
    Karen (in the Pacific Northwest)

  12. We keep a bird bath with fresh water in the shaded part of our backyard and there are 2 to 25 honeybees drinking from it during the day. Water is an issue here in south central Texas for wildlife, but we didn’t consider bees. We were surprised to see how many bees come to our yard for water.

  13. Really nice article and tips for nature lovers like myself. I especially liked the links to the Xerces Society’s plant lists and the reference to native bees. How can we reach out to the traditional home owner who wants a perfect lawn and no stinging insects though?

  14. If you purchased a daylilly & planted it then discovered it had been treated with neonicotinoids, does that mean it will forever be toxic to insects ? Should I remove it from thr garden? It has been there 3 weeks.

  15. I belong to the Native Prairie Association of Texas. A pocket prairie in your back yard will produce the year-round pollinator feast. That is also why preserving and restoring our native prairies is so very valuable. The variety of native pollinators is amazing and they are very helpful to agriculture too.

  16. Matt – this is excellent. I am Butterfly and Pollinator Chairperson for the Garden Club of Kentucky. I am also in charge of promoting our current President Edith Nelson’s special project on Native Pollinator Conservation Education. Would you mind if we republished your article in our upcoming “Bulletin”? It goes to all the members of our nonprofit organization. We would, of course, give you full credit. I would love for our members to have this information. Thank you for your consideration.

  17. “Build it and they will come”. How True. 8 weeks ago I planted a single milkweed plant in my backyard. Within 2 weeks their were 4 tiger moth caterpillars and several milkweed bugs on the plant. Now there is a monarch caterpillar, along with dozens of milkweed bugs. I check it out everyday and am anxiously awaiting the chrysalis and then the monarch butterfly.

  18. Your timing is perfect. My neighbor just removed three trees and my shady yard now has a major sunny area. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to make a change in my yard, and want to put in native plants that sustain birds and pollinators. Thanks for the tip about the Xerces Society. I can’t wait to get started this fall.

  19. I have a relatively mature zeriscape yard in the south suburbs of Denver with a variety of flowering annual flowers and shrubs . Right now, the Blue Mist Spirea and Russian Sage are attracting both honey and bumble bees. It is fascinating to watch them during the middle of the day.

  20. OUR COUNTY ROAD COMMISSION CONTROLS ROADSIDE WEEDS BY SPRAYING EVERY FEW YEARS. DO YOU HAVE SUGGESTIONS ON BEST PRACTICE FOR WEED CONTROL USED BY OTHER ROAD COMMISSIONS AROUND THE US?

  21. This is a great article. Also know that every seed and plant you buy at a garden shop has been treated with the long lasting neonicotinoids. Neonics can last for 5 years or more on the seed and plant. You cannot wash the pesticide off. I buy certified organic seeds and plants to make certain that my flowers and plants are healthy for all pollinators.

  22. One of the buzz-iest places in my bee, butterfly, and bird friendly gardens are the Turtleheads which are native where I live. It is a veritable bee symphony while these plants flower. They also visit the bee balm and raspberries, zucchini and cucumber patches. Love the sound of them and even our yellow jackets who don’t really bother anyone either as long as you don’t touch them accidentally.

  23. We have a fig tree and lots of figs but they fall off is that because we are not getting the right pollinators bees

  24. I live in Hawaii. What can I plant to help? I want a variety of flowers all over my yard! 🙂

  25. Is Matt no longer working this blog? Why are the comments All more than a year old with nothing newer?

  26. I mostly avoid any sprays. Can you give alternatives to use for killing off lawn ( replacing it with poly culture perennials) and preventing weedy growth in hard to reach areas , such as between pavers or bricks?