Planting for Pollinators

As this is Pollinator Week (June 19-25), let’s think about planting for pollinators. Gardening to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, which are drawn to nectar and pollen-rich flowers, adds activity, sound and beauty to our garden. But more importantly, it helps ensure their survival.


Most have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, a worldwide die-off of honeybees, upon whom we depend for pollination of over 140 food crops such as blueberries, apples, cucumbers, squash, peaches, avocados and strawberries to name only a few.

Early research has linked this mysterious decline to the use of neonicotinoids, a nerve-agent class of pesticides. As a systemic pesticide, every part of the plant takes up the chemical, becoming toxic to anything that eats its leaves, roots, pollen or nectar. To make matters worse, it can persist for months or years in the environment, contaminating soil and ground water.

I’ve always gardened organically because I never wanted to expose myself or my family to unwanted chemicals, regardless of how ‘safe’ the label claimed them to be. If it kills a living thing, it couldn’t be good for me, my kids or my pets. I’ve found that plants are healthiest and tastiest when grown organically, better for me and the planet.

Unfortunately, when we buy plants from a nursery or chain-retailer, we seldom ask about their horticultural practices. How horrifying to think we are doing a good thing by planting a ‘bee-friendly’ plant, when it may be tainted with a toxin that will kill them after they visit! Perhaps it is time we started asking, and writing to large scale nurseries and retailers to let them know how we feel. Or vote with your money by buying from those farmers who pledge to use organic practices. Buy seed from them and raise your own plants, share cuttings and divisions from trusted fellow gardeners who follow similar practices.

If you live near soy or corn fields, chances are good that the seed they use is treated with neonicotonids. Drift from dust and groundwater could be reaching your land as well. These are tough issues to address, but done earnestly, I expect farmers are just as interested in protecting their families and land as well as we are.

So what plants do bees love that you can plant in your garden? Firstly, native bees love native plants, so those are always a good choice. But honeybees aren’t necessarily native and many native bees have adapted to non-native plants. Experience will show which are favorites. Following are what I’ve noticed in my garden.

Early spring is a critical time for emerging bees, so snow crocus, snowdrops (Galanthus) and early blossoming bulbs feed them when little else is available. Shrubs like Fothergilla, Spirea, Ninebark (Physocarpus), Quince (Chaenomeles) and Privet (Ligustrum) are magnets for bees.

I’ve found anything in the mint (Lamiaceae) family to be highly attractive– Salvia, Stachys, Mentha, herbs like Oregano (Origanum) and Thyme (Thymus). Aster (Asteraceae) family– Symphotrichum, Echinops, Eryngium. Boraginaceae family– Phacelia, Borago, Echium. Alliums–all.  Poppies, particularly Papaver somniferum. If you have noted any others, please list them in the comments below to share with other readers.



Monarda didyma – Bee Balm

Butterflies love many of the same flowers as hummingbirds (see below), however, choosing native plants to which they are naturally adapted provides food for both larvae and adults. Learn to identify the larvae of your favorite butterflies so that they are not mistaken for pests. Planting a garden with plants that are intended to be riddled with holes seems contrary, but if you want to successfully attract butterflies, provide for the entire life cycle.

Monarch instar larva on Milkweed

Monarch instar larva on Milkweed (

Some plants, such as milkweed (Asclepias) and joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium), are used by both larvae and adults, while others provide nectar for the adult butterflies that we love to see flitting about our gardens. Coneflower (Echinacea), Gaillardia, Phlox, Goldenrod (Solidago), Liatris, New England aster (Symphotrichum), Sedum and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) are highly favored perennials. Trumpet vine (Campsis) and honeysuckle (Lonicera) are popular vines. Azalea, Lilac (Syringa) and Blueberry (Vaccinium) are good shrub choices. Zinnia, Lantana, Verbena and Impatiens are frequently visited annuals.



Situate larval food plants toward the back of your border or in a spot where their chewed leaves won’t bother you. Train yourself to cheer their tattered appearance! Refrain from using pesticides anywhere in your yard. Plan for a succession of bloom all season long to attract the maximum number of species. Click this website link for information and photos to help identify butterfly and moth species, their ideal habitat, favorite flowers and larval host plants.


Swallowtail Butterfly on Milkweed (


In early May, I know hummingbirds have returned when they visit my quince bushes. Providing a sequence of favored blossoming plants all spring, summer and into autumn assures these visitors will find my yard a welcoming habitat. Hanging baskets of annuals like Fuchsia, Petunia, Thunbergia and Million-bells (Calibrachoa) in bright red, orange or pink are highly attractive. Tubular flowers like Agastache, Penstemon, Crocosmia, Monarda, Kniphofia, Salvia and Lobelia are magnets to hummingbirds.

Many people use hummingbird feeders to supplement flowers, however, sugar water not only attracts ants, hornets and flies, it lacks the vitamins and minerals found in flower nectar. If you do keep a feeder, clean it weekly to avoid potentially harmful mold and bacteria that can adversely affect hummingbirds.

Attracting winged creatures to your garden adds color, vitality and enjoyment while simultaneously ensuring the survival of these vital friends.  I urge you to please do what you can in your garden, nationally and globally to help.

About Eliza Waters

Gardener, writer, photographer, naturalist
This entry was posted in Country Gardening, My Photos and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

70 Responses to Planting for Pollinators

  1. bittster says:

    An excellent posting on this subject! My whole yard seems to be buzzing this year and I think it’s from all the rain and decent growing weather this season. The last few years were so dry, I guess when the plants are suffering the insects will as well.
    I have a littleleaf linden in the yard. The whole tree buzzes with all kinds of insects. It’s not native will probably feed the same visitors as the American linden.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Frank. I bet your yard is a haven for pollinators! Thanks for adding linden to the list. I love coming upon a plant loaded with buzzing insects. It always makes me happy. 🙂

  2. cindy knoke says:

    What a gorgeous collection of color and life!

  3. Lovely post Eliza! Thanks. I too became alarmed last year about our use of neonicotinids (my spelling may not be the best!) To your list I’d add hellebores early in the year – and that includes the doubles, which the bees also seem to love – and ivy late in the year. Wish I could attract a few hummingbirds my way!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Cathy. Are there hummingbirds in France? We have only one species here in the East, but out West there are several. The tropics have many.
      Thanks for adding hellebore and ivy to the list. 🙂

  4. Anne says:

    A fascinating and well written article – I have so enjoyed reading this!

  5. Excellent post and kudos in highlighting Pollinators Week, Eliza. Sound advice, well written and informative; makes good sense to plant native species 🙂

  6. This is brilliant and so very important. Thank you!

  7. Great post. Have you found an organic manner in which to kill weeds in pathways? I tried straight vinegar with a couple of drops of dish soap to no avail. They are all still there smiling up at me. 🙂

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thanks, Judy. I was going to suggest vinegar, I’ve had good luck with it. Boil a pot of hot water, and dribble it over them. This is how I use the leftover water when I boil corn or blanch veggies for freezing.

  8. A highly informative post, Eliza

  9. pastpeter says:

    Good suggestions, Eliza

  10. dianaed14 says:

    Not only do I love your photos of flowers I am in awe of your knowledge and do not use herbicides etc but do use Roseclear and am not sure if it is ok but will check.. Many people use diluted washing up liquid to get rid of aphids?

  11. Rita Pichette says:

    Great list, Liz! I would add climbing hydrangea to it. If you have a supporting structure for it, when it flowers it will be covered with little native pollinators AND butterflies. I have also noticed that different pollinators come in the morning vs. late afternoon to many of my blossoms. I imagine there also are night pollinators that I never see because I’m tucked in bed!

  12. Laurie Graves says:

    Yes, yes! One of the pleasures of gardening is attracting creatures that flutter, fly, buzz, and pollinate. Thanks for a wonderful, informative post.

  13. Murtagh's Meadow says:

    Great informative post Eliza with important message about neonicotinoids. In a recent UK study of plants sold as bee-friendly, 27 out of the 29 plants were founds to have traces of these harmful chemicals.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Argh! Terrible heartbreaking stats! What are people thinking (or are they thinking)? Thanks for all you’re doing to spread the message as well.

      • Murtagh's Meadow says:

        You are right Eliza – they are not thinking! Or at least all they are thinking about is pound and dollar signs!

  14. Chloris says:

    A great post Eliza. Well done, it is important to keep on getting the message out.

  15. Cathy says:

    A great post for putting across an important message Eliza. It must get on friends’ and neighbours’ nerves, but I am always telling them you can garden without slug pellets and weed killers, fly sprays and the such! The nearest we get to hummigbirds in Europe is the Hummingbird Hawk-moth which loves my Centranthus. Another plant important for bees in early spring here is the Mahonia. Many cultivars bloom in winter in milder climates, but the one that grows best here (and seeds around everywhere too) waits until March. The bees absolutely adore it!

  16. arlingwoman says:

    I planted some leeks that turned out tough and inedible, so I decided to let them flower. They did, great purplish spheres turning white, looking strange and spectacular. I wasn’t sure I wanted them all seeding, so was going to rip them out last week, but they were buzzing with bees, so I would add various kinds of allium…Great article, Eliza–and more good info in comments!

  17. Gracefully Global says:

    What a piece, Eliza, wonderful work. You’ve addressed so many important topics here, but they share in common your love of the environment and the beings in it. I really appreciate that…your words are helpful for tons of us, I know. I’m going to share your article with my parents – they will both appreciate it. Thanks so much, Eliza. Keep up the awesome work. :))

  18. Thank you for all these ideas! I haven’t seen the hummingbirds this year, but I definitely heard one buzz by me the other day, so I know they’re here. My fuchsias are pretty much solely purchased to attract them!

  19. Informative & great photos. Thanks for info on bees.

  20. Christy B says:

    Wow, Eliza! I’m not a gardener so I give hats off to you for all of this knowledge you have about flowers and the pollinators. You are so kind to share this with everyone. Helping nature is a beautiful thing xx

  21. MK says:

    bless you for being a champion for our planet

  22. Brilliant article! 🙂 After reading about the chemicals/garden centres earlier this year, I’ve grown all of my new pollinators from seed this year … thank you for raising awareness of this incredibly important issue x

  23. What a comprehensive post. So informative and beautifully photographed!

  24. naturebackin says:

    I really love your “big picture” approach so that the garden can nurture so many species. So worrying the use of systemic pesticides and how pervasive they are. I had not thought about nurseries selling contaminated plants until now – thank you for highlighting this issue.

  25. Kathy Sturr says:

    Because you know me Eliza, I don’t think I need to tell you how much I LOVE this post! The only thing I buy from the big box stores are shrubs of the evergreen variety and pavers. I usually order an assortment of native plants each year and the funny thing is, native plants don’t seem to need any built in protection or pesticides probably because as Douglas Tallamy stresses our native plants have evolved with our pollinators and so they are in balance. I can tell you a few bee magnets I have in my garden: number one Culver’s Root, number two Solidagos. I am working on planting more native early spring plants. Serviceberry is a hit! Amsonias were welcomed by the bees as are the flowering dogwoods and viburnums. Right now my bees are crazy on cranesbills, oenothera primrose, flowering raspberry (the entire shrub buzzes). Non native plants I’ve found bee friendly are alliums, sedums, and lamiums. My bee balm is just beginning to bloom so the bees and hummers will be active! This year I added mountain mint to my bird & butterfly border. I learned it was the number one plant visited by pollinators in a study by Penn State in one of my master gardener excursions so of course, just had to have it! Bees & Love!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Kathy and pleased to know about the additional plants. Mountain mint, hmmm. I was just looking at Monarda punctata, horsemint. Know anything about it? Fantastic flower. If it is aggressive, I can put it in the field with the other mints.

  26. I love this post. I have begun to grow pollinators from seed too. I live in an area with lots of Rape seed and I worry about all the pesticides they use. I have noticed that there are definitely less bees about and butterflies worryingly. Let’s hope that more gardeners rely on wildlife to control pests rather than using chemicals. I have learnt a lot more by reading your post, so thank you.

  27. Brenda says:

    What a great post Eliza. We try to create a haven here for our pollinators–aside from the good it does, they add so much richness to our days. I keep trying to add new pollinator-friendly plants and will try the cigar plant next year in my planters (I too tend to lose the fushcias in summer heat). This has been a wonderful year for the yellow swallowtails–I’m hoping we’ll get some monarchs, too. Enjoy the Fourth.

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you, Brenda. The presence of winged friends makes the garden even more special, doesn’t it? I hope your get monarchs… my milkweed plants are all ready and waiting. Enjoy your weekend.

      • Brenda says:

        I have lots of common milkweed (it earns the “weed” part of its name) and planted some swamp milkweed this year. Ready and waiting!!

  28. Pingback: Bee Love: Planting a Bee Garden | The Barefoot Aya

  29. Hi Eliza, wonderful post! Your garden must be an oasis for pollinators. It’s so important to plant cautiously while thinking about all the biodiverse life in a garden. Too often we forget about the little guys who do most of the work spreading pollen from flower to flower. Pollinators already have a hard enough time finding flowers due to the increasing pressures of urban development, so its important that the few they can find are safe- free from harmful chemicals. Starting organic and resisting the use of pesticides truly will ensure flowers provide a safe nutritious meal for all pollinators. Thanks again for the insights into your beautiful garden and spreading your knowledge! Happy gardening!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Thank you very much! I am pretty passionate about the subject as you can tell. 🙂
      An idea that I wish would take hold is leaving wild sections along roads, etc. only mowed once/year. Oasis in suburban/urban jungles. Planting for wildlife is so important.

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