8 easy and beautiful ways you can help bees and other pollinators

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GRN Reports

1 – Plant native plants that feed bees and butterflies

This would seem like a no-brainer, and yet a lot of the standard petunias and begonias that you see landscapers use repeatedly for “color” are relatively unhelpful to the buzzing insect life you want to attract and support.

Why not do double-duty by getting your landscape colors from salvia, verbena, yarrow, hyssop, agastache, penstemon, milkweed — all blooming native flowers that also help sustain bees and butterflies. That’s not to mention the blooming and berry-producing shrubs that help out birds as well.

There are hundreds of varieties of blooming native plants to choose from, in every climate zone in the US. But you may have to track down a nursery specializing in natives or even order seeds from online providers like High Country Gardens or Native American Seed to get certain varieties. If you don’t know a verbena from a geranium, seek out a book on plants for pollinators. (There’s a wonderful one just ahead on this  list.)

Before you pick your plants, check out the list of robust pollinator-sustaining flower and shrubs online at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  The Portland-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the main advocacy for invertebrates, developed this inventory along with the LBJ Center.  Here you can find blooms you like, and plants that are suitable for your area, along with pictures to help you plan your home display.

2 – Plant milkweed, in particular, because these plants support the Monarch and other butterflies

Monarch 2
Monarch butterfly (Photo: Aidan Kessler)

Butterflies, especially the monarch (the lowest number ever-recorded overwintered in Mexico last year), are in dire need. They need more foraging plants because agriculture has claimed much of the wild spaces in North America. Some cultivated plants can help them, but natives are best, providing for all their life cycles (remember they’re only butterflies for part of their life).

Some variety of milkweed will grow wherever you are in the US. Variations include Showy Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed and Common Milkweed. All these bloom into colorful medium tall plants that can brighten a landscape for weeks. Swamp Milkweed, for instance, produces beautiful pink to coral flowers. It ranges natively across the Eastern seaboard west to Texas and attracts hummingbirds as well as bees and butterflies.

“It’s a fantastic nectar plant for honeybees. It produces a huge volume of high quality nectar and honeybees are just attracted to it,” says Eric Lee-Mäder, co-director of the pollinator program for The Xerces Society. Milkweeds also come in so many varieties, that homeowners can choose the blooms they like and they’re not likely to disappoint anyone aesthetically.

Pollinator Plants, Swamp Milkweed, Andy  and Sally Wasowski, photo LBJ WFC
Swamp Milkweed (Photo: Andy and Sally Wasowski, LBJ Wildflower Center)

3 – Plant a sunflower on the patio

You don’t have to own a big spread to be part of the solution. If you live in an apartment, even if it’s in an urban canyon, you can plant a sunflower on the patio or rooftop deck.

”If you can put one sunflower in that flower pot, that one flower is habitat, and if every single person who had a person with one sunflower on it, then our cities would be sunflower fields,” Lee-Mäder said.

This is an easy one because they’re dozens of types of sunflowers native to the US, including the “common sunflower,” which ranges over the entire lower 48 states.

Sunflowers also present an easy way for farmers to restore blooms to their acreages, drawing in native pollinators.

Pollinator Plants, Sunflower, Patrick J. Alexander, USDA
Common sunflower (Photo: Patrick J. Alexander, USDA)

4 – Put water out for pollinators in the summer

Many insects get their water via the nectar they eat. But clean water can help honeybees in hot areas. They collect it and bring back to hive, not to drink, but to use while fanning their wings to create evaporative cooling, says Lee-Mäder. (Yeah, bees are pretty smart.)

5 – Quit using toxic chemicals on your lawn

You knew this one was coming, right?

There are so many organic ways to grow a healthy lawn – using organic compost tea, corn gluten and other natural additives – that chemicals aren’t required.

Insecticides have no place on farms or in conservation areas, says Lee-Mäder . So if you want your landscape to be a conservation area…

6 – Be bold, put up a sign about how you feel

Once you’ve installed a native landscape, The Xerces Society encourages you to take the next step, crow about it. It will help the neighbors understand where you’re coming from and give them something to think about.

Pollinator Habitat Sign
This garden sign is available from the Xerces Society.

You can let your neighbors know your yard is pesticide-free and pollinator-friendly by posting this sign, available from the Xerces Society.

7 – Learn more about pollinators

You can support groups that are researching and promoting bees and native plants. But you can also become a lay expert by studying up on native flowers online and at local events.

You may want to get a copy of The Xerces Society’s book, Attracting Native Pollinators. This fact-packed book, with numerous color illustrations, will help you design a native bed or mini-meadow, choose plants for a pollinator garden and better understand bees. Did you know that most won’t sting you, unless you’re threatening their nest, and some wild bees don’t even have stingers?

All you’re doing when you create a native garden is “modifying the landscape to attract very gentle, very docile animals. You can go out to a flower that has a bee and touch that flower and have no concern about getting stung,” said Lee-Mäder.

Pollinators, Attracting Native Pollinators

Attracting Native Pollinators features an entire section on specific bees and their needs. Bumblebees, for instance, thrive on goldenrod, a good reason to include it in your native landscape. Some types of bumblebees have already gone extinct in recent years.

This definitive book covers much more ground, from how GMO farming is killing bees to how to make nest blocks and farm buffers that can house wild bees to design ideas for school or botanical gardens that support pollinators.

8 – Be an advocate

Now that you know how to sustain a vital part of nature, pollinators, spread your expertise around.

Help your school, church or community set up a garden that attracts and supports pollinators. It will help the invertebrates we’ve been inadvertently (and also vertantly) poisoning with pesticides. It won’t hurt if your local school gets off pesticides in the process. Do you really want your kids playing in fields that have been sprayed with dangerous chemicals?

As important, the kids will learn about how they can be a positive force for nature.

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