In garden design, there is an importance put on a garden’s structure, the plant compositions, and how the use of the space can evoke different feelings. But when I spend time in a garden, I find myself actually observing the visiting life more than the plants or design itself! How your garden looks is important, but I think a garden needs to do more than just look nice. That’s why I absolutely love pollinator gardens. Gardens designed for pollinators are colorful and beautiful, and in addition to honeybees, they can also support native bees, beneficial insects, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds, and other birds. Keep reading to learn what your garden needs to be a pollinator haven!
7 Things Every Pollinator Garden Needs:
An Organic Environment
If you are using chemicals in your garden, you are not creating a safe environment. Beneficial insects or eggs may inadvertently get sprayed, or they ingest the poison when eating pollen or prey. Bees can take poisoned pollen or nectar back into a hive which will kill the larva.
Plants treated with neonicotinoids at nurseries (a standard at big box stores) may not affect the adults but will cause death in the next generation. Neonicotinoids, and many other pesticides, are systemic pesticides- they get absorbed by the plants into its tissues. They can be present in the plant and the surrounding soil for months and even years. ‘Organic’ pesticides can have these effects as well. If you take anything from this post, it’s to not use pesticides.
Year Round Blooms
For most of California, we have bees active year round. Our mild winters mean there are still nice days and the bees are active and flying. It’s important to for the pollinator garden to have blooms in all seasons (or, you might only have 3 bloom seasons if you’re somewhere with ‘real’ winters).
Having something in flower every month keeps the beneficial happy AND color in the garden year round. The first things to bloom in my garden in late winter are rosemary and the winter veggies that have gone to seed, like arugula and broccoli. In spring, I have poppies and bachelor buttons. In summer, the garden is awash in color the bright flowers like zinnias, Mexican sunflowers, and coreopsis. In the fall, sunflowers will be in bloom, as well as cosmos and black eyed susans. Using natives like manazinta and ceanothus are great for winter blooms.
I like to grow both a mix of annuals and perennials. This year will be only annuals in pots as I build my new Sacramento garden, but by next year I hope to have perennial borders established. Annuals are easy to tuck into vegetable gardens, and I’m a huge fan of things that reseed.
Groups of 3’
Honeybees will leave the hive for a flight and visit a single type of flower. She might ONLY go to sunflowers, the return to the hive. On another trip, she might ONLY to bachelor buttons, etc. In order to entice a bee to visit, you need enough of one type of flower blooming to make that flight worth it.
Research has shown that bees will visit patches of at least 3 feet by 3 feet. In the pollinator garden, this can be composed of a single large perennial, or perhaps a clump of several smaller plants. In a vegetable garden or for a more naturalist landscape, repeating the same plant thought out beds would create sufficient repetition for a bee to be attracted. Also keep this in mind when planting vegetables that need bee pollination. Is your 1 zucchini plant producing enough blooms to encourage a pollinator visit?
A Variety of Blooms
Just like we can’t live on a diet of just cheese and candy (or at least, we wouldn’t be healthy!), most bees can’t live on a diet of just one type of bloom. Some flowers produce pollen, and some produce nectar, and both are crucial for a healthy diet in bees. Having only one source of flower causes nutritional stress (one of the many issues with mono-cropping and the almond orchard situation), so make sure to have different types of flowers planted in your pollinator garden.
How many flowers varieties you have blooming in your yard depends on how large your space is. The more, the better, but make sure to have enough of one flower blooming so the bees can find it (see the 3×3 guideline above).
Different types of bees also visit different types of flowers, often based on the size of bee and size of flower. Some bees are too big to fit into narrow tubes, and some are too small to get lipped flowers open. Honeybees tend to prefer visiting flowers that were originally from the Mediterranean, Australia, and South America, but avoid natives. Similarly, native bees prefer native flowers and avoid those from the Mediterranean. Some bees will only visit a specific variety of flowers, while other bees are generalists, and will go to anything blooming. If you have a favorite native bee, and want to know what to plant to attract it, check out a book on native bees. California Bees & Blooms by Frankie, Thorp, Coville and Ertter being a great one.
The family of flowers that are regularly visited by bees include Asteraceae, Lamiaceae, Fabaceae, Boraginaceae, and Scrophulariaceae, but there are many others.
The colors in your garden will be based largely on your preference. I personally love a crazy, cottage garden of mixed flowers, but that look might not be for everyone. Whatever your color pallet is, there are flowers that the bees will visit. However, bees can see ultraviolet light and are sensitive to polarized light. They prefer flowers that are shades of blue, purple, and white with purple markings.
Some flowers have an ultraviolet pattern, unseen to humans, which help guide bees to land and find the pollen. Bees will also visit white, orange, pink and yellow flowers, but they can not see red. If you have a small space and can only plant limited varieties in your pollinator garden, stick with purple, which generally indicates it’s adapted for bee pollination.
It’s important to note that some flowers have been bred for looks, and have little value in a pollinator garden. Sunflowers that are pollen-less might be great for bouquets, but don’t provide any floral rewards for bees. Avoid flowers that are doubled petaled, which make it difficult for bees to access.
In hot weather, a honeybee colony might drink a liter of water a day and they need water to keep their hive cool. Foraging bees will stop at water sources throughout their flight, and others will bring back water to their hives. Make life easier for the bees and provide them with a water source in your pollinator garden.
Other than makings sure the water is clean, the most important thing is making sure the bees can’t fall in. Bees can’t grip to slippery sided bird baths or bowls, and can fall in and drown. You can turn an existing water feature into a bee water source by adding rocks, floating sticks or floating corks to give them a platform to land on. I like to fill plastic or ceramic plant saucers with rocks, then tuck in the garden under a drip emitter, so it regularly gets topped off with water. However, the favorite water source in my garden for the bees is my concrete birdbaths, which have sloping rough concrete sides. These not only give birds a safe surface to enter the water, but also the bees.
Honeybees colonies create their nests in (usually manmade) hives, but other bees need a different type of nesting site. About 70 percent of native bees nest in the ground, while 30% nest in cavities like hollow twigs or holes.
In a garden, you don’t need anything fancy to make a ground nesting bee a nest, just soil. Avoid layering mulch over all of the surfaces, and leave some soil exposed, and don’t cultivate it. Sandy, well draining soil is the best- some bees will burrow 3 feet deep! This doesn’t need to be in a middle of your landscape, it can simply be soil left alone along a back fence or under a tree. Ideally, bees prefer to travel no more than 1500 feet from nest to food, so it’s always nice to have some nesting space for those hyper-local bees.
For cavity nesting species, you can encourage nesting by simply providing suitable material. Many bees will find hollow plant stems or use small holes in old boards, but they will also happily use man-made cavities. You can create your own ‘bee hotel’ to provide a nesting site. Check back next week for a post on how to make your own native bee hotel!
Ready to plant your pollinator garden?
Make sure to download your free guide for my top favorite pollinator plants!
This post is part of a series about pollinator gardening. Check out the other posts!
Why You Need A Flower Garden
7 Basics Every Pollinator Garden Needs (you are here!)
How to Build A Mason Bee House (coming soon!)