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Creating a Pollinator Haven in your Yard and Garden

Butterflies on pink flowers

Pollinators are vital to the reproductive success of more than 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants. Hummingbirds, moths, bees, beetles, flies and butterflies are some of the common pollinators found in West Virginia.

Pollination happens when pollen grains from a flower’s male parts (anthers) are moved to the female parts (stigmas) of the same species and fertilization occurs, producing fruit and/or seeds. While wind and water can move pollen for some plants, most depend on pollinators to move it from one flower to the next. Crops, like tomatoes, peas and beans, are self-pollinating, but they still have to be shaken by the wind or need bees to release the pollen inside flowers. Other crops, like melons, cucumbers and squash, are entirely dependent on pollinators for fertilization, because they have separate male and female flowers. Without pollination, most fruits and vegetables will not set fruit, have incomplete or misshapen fruit or have a low yield.

The color, shape, odor and amount of nectar and pollen produced by flowers dictate the type of pollinators the flower attracts. Pollinators depend on plants’ nectar (sugar and water) and pollen (protein) as their primary food source. To create a pollinator-friendly habitat for your yard and garden areas:

  • Choose plants with flower blooms that vary in color, shape and height to attract a variety of pollinators.
  • Choose plants that bloom throughout the growing season, providing stable nectar and pollen sources.
  • Plant flowers in clumps rather than single plants to better attract pollinators and allow for better foraging efficiency.
  • Diversify your flowering species with abundant pollen and nectar, planting specific flowers to feed butterfly and moth caterpillars.
  • Choose flowers that are close to nature in appearance rather than highly modified hybrids and horticultural forms.

Pollinators have evolved with native plants, which are best adapted to the local growing season, climate and soils. It takes time for native plants to grow and for pollinators to find your garden, so be patient!

Colors are very important to pollinators. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, for example, share the ability to either see ultraviolet or nearly UV ranges, allowing them to see the center of a flower more clearly. They also have their own specialty color sight, which guides them to their favorite dining blooms. Bees see color five times faster than we can, which assists in spotting food at high speeds of flight. They can see blue, green, orange, yellow and UV, but find it very challenging to see red, especially on a green background. Butterflies are nearsighted and see the colors white, pink, purple, red, orange, yellow and UV, but also can struggle to distinguish a red from green background. Hummingbirds, however, can see ranges we see, plus a little into the UV range. Red is not challenging for them to see and is often the color of choice for blooms to feed on.

Pollinators also have preferred landing, or hovering space, and flowers are designed accordingly. Bees like a broad range of shapes and sizes. They grip the flower with their feet, sometimes even upside down, as they feed on the nectar with their proboscis, similar to a tongue, and collect the pollen. Bumblebees like shapes similar to that preferred by the hummingbirds – tubular – and have no problem extracting pollen from hard to reach places, such as that of the tomato flowers. However, bumblebees do feed on other floral structures, too. Butterflies like a broad landing surface, such as one that a sunflower or daisy can provide. They like to perch and dine through their long proboscis for longer periods than other pollinators. Hummingbirds are best in flight and like flowers shaped like trumpets, which is in accordance with the structure of their beaks. They need space to hover under or above the bloom while they drink the sweet nectar. They gravitate toward bright red blooms but will feed on other colors, too.

In addition to planting pollinator-attracting flowers, consider these options for bringing pollinators to your garden:

  • Have a source of fresh water.

  • Leave flowering weeds along the edge of your garden or yard to serve as alternate food sources.

  • Keep small, south-facing, undisturbed, bare ground patches nearby.

  • Leave a dead tree or limb in wooded areas for nesting options.

  • Install bat houses and bee nesting blocks.

  • Expect (and accept) a little pest activity in the yard and garden (beneficial insects need sources food, too).
  • Remove pests by hand when pest activity becomes excessive.

  • Limit pesticide use. If needed, apply in early morning or late evening when pollinators are least active.

  • Use the least toxic to non-pest species and ones that do not persist on vegetation, if insecticides are necessary. Don’t apply when plants are in bloom or it is windy.

Specific plant species for specific pollinators:

  • Hummingbirds: honeysuckle flowers
  • Green sweat bees and leaf-cutter bees: composites and open-faced sunflowers – erigeron, gaillardia, sunflowers, asters
  • Bumblebees and mason bees: willows, golden currant, hawthorn, serviceberry, chokecherry
  • Other bees: buttercups, black-eyed Susans
  • Butterflies: platform-shaped sunflowers and asters, violets, serviceberry shrubs
  • Blue butterflies: red-osier dogwood, chokecherry, lupine
  • Sphinx moths (Hummingbird moths): pale or white flowers, columbine, honeysuckle, evening primrose
  • Solider and flower beetles: yarrow, sunflowers
  • Hover flies: golden currant, rabbit brush, sunflowers

Brandy Brabham, WVU Extension Agent - Roane County