10 Ways You Can Help Pollinators in Your Backyard

Supporting Bees and Pollinators in the Home Garden

April 22, 2020
Hoverfly on Zinnia

Hoverflies are valuable beneficial insects to have in your garden!

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Insects are responsible for one out of every three bites of food. With new reports showing pollinators remain in steep decline, let’s get straight to what we can do about it. Fortunately, it’s been proven that regular homeowners can achieve a great deal! Here are 10 ideas to help pollinators from home—from simply adding wildflowers to decreasing pesticides.

Our Insect Population is Disappearing

You’re probably well aware that the populations of our native bees, butterflies, and other insect pollinators have been declining for several decades. A study from January 2019, indicates 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. Perhaps you’ve noticed fewer butterflies and bees in your own backyard?

Why does this matter? First, no insects means no food. One out of every three bites of food you eat is due to pollinators. About three-fourths of all flowering plants are pollinated by insects, as well as the crops that produce more than one-third of the world’s food supply. Importantly, insects are the bedrock of our entire ecosystem (birds, lizards, frogs, and other wildlife). Without insects, birds and fish and small mammals decline; if they decline, the entire food web is affected.

10 Ways That ANYONE Can Help Pollinators

Thankfully, in the past few years, many programs have shown that we actually CAN make a real difference. 

Dr. Sverdrup-Thygeson, a professor of conservation biology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, states, “We can achieve a great deal with belts of trees and bushes alongside streams in residential areas, green shoulders and hedges along roads, and borders of wildflower meadows along the edges of fields.”

Even a regular homeowner with a small garden can have a powerful impact, namely with: native flowers and trees, pollinator host plants, nesting sites, and a refuge from pesticides.

Here’s more information.

1. Choose Native Plants Over Non-Natives

“Native” plants are simply plants that occur naturally in the region where they evolved. Native insects evolved alongside them, as did native birds and wildlife. It’s one big ecosystem!

Exotic, non-native plants can sometimes wipe out native plant and insect species, which may harm the food web. Here’s how we can help prevent that:

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Photo: See our video that shows you how to plant a bee-friendly garden.

  • Consider a mixture of plants with diversified sources of nectar (e.g., shrubs, trees, and flowers—ideally, natives). Shrubs and trees such as dogwood, blueberry, cherry, plum, willow, and poplar provide pollen or nectar, or both, early in spring when food is scarce.
  • Look for a variety of plants that bloom in different seasons (spring, summer, and fall) to attract insects across the year.
  • Adding native milkweed to your garden provides food for monarch butterfly caterpillars, but don’t forget nectar sources for the adults, such as flowers that bloom in late summer. 

monarch butterflies on milkweed
Photo: Monarch butterflies visit milkweed flowers

  • Consider planting a pollinator strip as a border to a vegetable garden or a wildflower border along the edge of your field. You’ll improve pollination of your crops and also support bees when the crops stop blooming. It will also attract and support other pollinators, such as hoverflies and wasps, that control crop pests.

See our video showing how to plant a pollinator border in your yard or garden!

2. Welcome Insects Into Your Garden

Many people find insects annoying, but we should really start thinking about the fact that we can’t survive without them (although they certainly survived before our arrival). 

Pollinators are critical to our food supply. They keep our flowers blooming; they increase fruit or seed quantity in three-fourths of our food crops. 

  • European honey bees, while still valuable, are not native to North America and are much less efficient at pollinating our native plants than native bee species. (Native bees may be up to three times more efficient than honey bees!) Read more about native bees, the best pollinators around.
  • Native bees, the most important pollinators in most ecosystems, include mason bees, sweat bees, carpenter bees, miner bees, and leafcutter bees, which are all solitary bee species. Instead of living in colonies, like honey bees or bumblebees, solitary bees live on their own in burrows, reeds, or other protected areas. Install a native bee hotel. Learn more about bee houses. Or, drill holes of varying sizes in a dead tree that’s still standing (if beetles haven’t done it for you). Watch our video demonstrating how to build a bee hotel.

Bees aren’t the only pollinators in the garden, though.

  • Half of the butterfly species studied are in decline, with one-third threatened with extinction.
  • Flies also play important roles! While you may expect butterflies to be the #2 pollinator, flies are actually the ones that hold that title!
  • Other insects—such as praying mantises, ladybugs, beetles, and green lacewings—are fantastic at tackling pests. For example, lacewings and ladybugs eat aphids, which can decimate vegetable crops. Do not spray chemicals on your plants—and insects!

► Read “Beneficial Insects in the Garden” and see a list of the good bugs with pictures

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3. Go Easy on the Chemicals

All gardens have some pests, but deter them in ways that won’t harm the food that you are growing or the beneficial insects!

Instead of spraying with chemicals, consider other options. From diatomaceous earth to neem oil to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), there are many less-toxic methods available that really work.

Incorporate plants that attract beneficial insects for pest control. See how to get rid of garden pests naturally.

Remember that chemical fertilizers and pesticides eventually end up in rivers, oceans, and wetlands. Pesticides and herbicides tend to kill many more creatures than the one or two bug species that we target, as annoying as they might be. 

4. Mix in “Companion Plants”

Are you familiar with the practice of companion planting? Pair up the right plants to naturally repel pests. For example, dill and basil planted among tomatoes can protect from tomato hornworms. When paired together, companion plants improve each other’s health and yields. 

Also, mix flowers and vegetables together! You don’t have to choose between growing ornamentals and edibles. Many types of flowers confuse the “bad” pests and help you to grow a healthier garden.

► Learn more about companion planting.

5. Encourage Birds

Birds are pollinators, too!

  • Provide clean water for birds (and insects) with a shallow dish, bowl, or birdbath with half-submerged stones for perches.
  • Put up bird feeders and nesting boxes. See how to choose a bird feeder.
  • Don’t cut down the flowers of plants like sunflowers, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans in the fall, as their seed heads provide a valuable food source for birds in winter.

► Learn more about creating a bird-friendly backyard.

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6. Be Water-wise

Using water thoughtfully is a very important part of a pollination-friendly landscape.

  • As advised above, select your plants with care! If you have a dry area, consider native plants that are more naturally drought-tolerant such as sedum and speedwell (Veronica). If you have a wet area, consider water-tolerant plants (that don’t mind wet feet), such as iris, canna, and ferns.
     
  • Avoiding wasting water. If you must use sprinklers, put them on timers. For gardens, flower beds, trees, and other nonlawn areas, installing a drip irrigation system that puts the water right into the soil, where you want it.
     
  • Harvest your rain water. A rain garden collects rain water from a roof, driveway, or street and allows it to soak into the ground. Rain gardens can also help to filter out pollutants in runoff and provide food and shelter for butterflies, song birds, and other wildlife. See a “sun” and a “shade” rain garden plot plan.

Rain garden
A rain garden, situated at the corner of a parking lot, helps to catch water runoff during rainstorms. 

  • Alternatively, install a rain barrel to catch water and use it on your plants. See our post about rain barrels.
  • Organic mulches such as compost slow water down, so that more moisture goes into the soil instead of running off. That said, leave a little bare ground so that the solitary bees and pollinators have places to nest. Read more about the “Benefits of Mulch.”
  • Finally, consider reducing the size of the all-grass lawn. Perhaps you could stop mowing one section and convert it to a native wildflower border or meadow?

7. Try Composting

Do you have spare room in the corner of your yard? Instead of throwing out vegetable scraps and yard trimmings, dispose of them in a compost pile. You’ll encourage compost-making worms and bugs that will help to create a rich, fertile soil for your garden within months. It’s a great way to use fallen leaves, too! 

  • We have the perfect compost recipe to get things cooking. See how to compost!
  • There’s also in-garden or in-situ composting, which is when you are composting directly where you’re going to grow. See more about in-garden composting.
  • Ever heard of vermicomposting? Just have worms eat your garbage! It’s an easy way to recycle food waste indoors year-round. See how to vermicompost.
  • If you have roses or ornamental gardens, consider “compost tea,” which is a natural fertilizer to help plants thrive. See how to make compost tea.

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8. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

In general, caring about yourself and nature means being less wasteful. Who could argue with that? If you are a gardener, here are just a few ideas out of many:

  • Buy in bulk when you know that you’ll need a lot of topsoil, mulch, compost, or other materials. This cuts down on plastic bags. Many garden centers will even deliver right to your yard. Also check with your city recycling center or Department of Transportation; they might offer free compost, soil, sand, or other materials.
  • Reuse, recycle, or return old plastic pots and trays. See six ways to reuse pots and containers.
  • Make your own plant pots! See how to make biodegradable plant pots.

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9. Give Grass a Chance to Thrive Alone

If you’re going to grow grass, eliminate the chemical pesticides that you spread on lawns in favor of alternatives that are healthier—healthier for you, for the lawn, and for the environment.

  • Start by checking the soil pH (acidity) of your lawn with a test kit available at most nursery and garden supply stores or at your state’s cooperative extension service. Soil pH affects the ability of plants to absorb nutrients. Spread limestone to raise the pH level; spread aluminum sulfate to decrease the pH level.
  • Grow grass that is suitable to your needs, not just in terms of climate and soil, but also with regard to purpose. Ask your nursery to recommend seed for grass that suits your site.
  • Don’t shave the lawn down to the ground; mow it to be 2.5 to 3.5 inches tall all season. Cut it to about 2 inches in autumn.
  • And, if at all possible, use a hand mower, instead of an electric or gas model. You’ll appreciate the freedom from fumes and noise and perhaps sleep more soundly after walking your property.

10. Leave Nesting Sites for Pollinators

Many insects hibernate for the winter and need a place to bed down. New queen bees are born in the fall. After breeding, they find a place to reside for the cold season, emerging in the spring and starting the next generation. 

Hole-nesting bees and beetles need things like dead tree trunks or reeds to overwinter in. Leave some natural areas of your yard instead of landscaping every inch!

Work With Nature, Not Against It

As we hope you see, you can certainly achieve a great deal with small changes in your own “habitat.”  Also, support land conservation in your community when it comes to creating community gardens and green spaces.

You’re supporting pollinators—and people!

Did you find this article helpful? We welcome your tips and questions about how to help insect populations below …

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Reader Comments

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Great,simple ways to help Our-Mother Nature’s- pollinators

Thanks for this article. Gratitude for everyone interested in creating pollinator-friendly gardens, as they are ultimately the most beautiful, natural, and surprisingly the simplest perennial gardens to maintain imaginable. We can all enjoy them while also playing a role in protecting our pollinators, upon which, (whom??), our very existence was made possible. Many beneficial insects are up to be next on the worldwide list of species considered to soon officially be extinct. This is the real case with the Monarch Butterflies. Along with the disappearing native bumblebees we could face times when we will not to be able to see much less be able to benefit from our pollinators, including local, native bumblebees, migrating butterflies, thousands of different kinds of bees, flies, wasps, even moths and bats. It is a fact that without the plants that have sustained these creatures since they first appeared on the earth they will disappear, become extinct by the hundreds of thousands due to the lack of those life-sustaining plants that once grew wild in the U. S. Their former homelands and countryside’s aren’t there when they return, as many have been replaced by development coast to coast, destroying the plants, waterways, yet leaving us in the unique position to possibly help restore hope through our 2020- 2021 victory gardens, container gardens, and deck or patio gardens...which is how I started growing plants. Our plants can make a difference. I have observed Monarch Butterflies over the past 3 years. They do depend on a specific yet available to us to plant and grow milkweed plant that comes in different varieties, one or more of which does grow in your local area. If interested through resources online or locally find and support your local nurseries that practice organic sustainable gardening/plantings and your state’s agricultural and home extension offices. You may also enjoy discovering JourneyNorth.com, a university and butterfly enthusiasts supported organization, that tracks, follows, and invites participation if you wish in the many signs in nature including the huge Eastern U. S./Mexico North American migration of the Monarch Butterflies between the two countries. We can contribute to helping sustain the migrating Monarchs’ by just starting and maintaining native milkweed. Our family has learned through observation and somewhat by default that Monarch Butterflies and many other varieties of stunning butterflies have been amazingly easy to attract here in the Piedmont of N. C., and have learned over the past few years that they love the same things that we do- beautiful, flowering, perennial native plants,(most importantly the one of a limited list of 1-2 Native Milkweed plants that sustain them for their entire lives, from the eggs they lay, through all stages/instars as caterpillars, until they eclose as adult butterflies. Naturally this also provides flowers and nectar along with all the other native wildflowers you plant that may return each spring and summer. Best to all, stay safe, enjoy life.

Plant pollinators garden

Wonderful article. Thank you for all the useful information and videos. Blessings, Kathy

If honeybees are what you are trying to attract...

Plant flowers in swaths: it's easier for bees to spot from above. Also, apparently the color red is difficult for honeybees to see, so you might want to consider flowers of a different color if this is your intent. And remember that flower gardens can exist at all levels! Flowering trees and shrubs are sources of food and shelter for pollinators. Flowering vines can be grown up lattices and over bowers. Some evergreen ground covers flower annually, plus flowering vines can also be left to sprawl along the ground.

WILDFLOWER/WEED CULTIVATION

For some reason an unused strip of yard next to my house sprouted a mass of jewel weed this year. Being a master procrastinator and since it was basically out of the way I never got around to pulling them up. Gazing out of my bathroom window one day I noticed the incredible amount and variety of bees and "flower" flies visiting these "weeds". The patch is ten feet away from my container garden of cucumbers, eggplants and tomatoes. I had been wondering if the stories about the dearth of local bees would mean I would be out there with Q tips in hand doing all the pollinating. Not to worry. After visiting the invaders, the winged army has been more than happy to visit my crops. One persons weed is an others gardening ally.

great ideas

A lot of great ideas to create a natural oasis. I'm turning the borders of my yard into wildflower meadow. Should help with pollinators and my garden and less mowing!

Wildflower meadow

The Editors's picture

A wildflower meadow or even borders of wildflower meadows along the edges of fields can achieve a great deal!

A small border isn’t difficult but if you’re planning on a larger wildflower meadow, it’s important to establish correctly.

You may find Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center a helpful reference. See this article: www.wildflower.org/learn/plant-wildflower-meadow