For Pollinator Week: Looking at the Science Behind Gardening for Pollinators

Did you know that National Pollinator Week is coming up June 16-22, 2014?


To get prepared for Pollinator Week, let’s take a look at gardening as a way to encourage local pollinators.

How would you go about it? If you have the typical vast expanse of grass, one step could be to carve out areas from that lawn and start adding beds and borders of a diversity of flowering plants. Over time, you could continue to expand the beds until you reach the point where you can recycle the lawnmower.

Choosing which plants to include in a pollinator garden may be complicated. The best solution is to grow plants that originated in a given area or native plants.


There are regional plant lists available, but using only native plants is not always possible. These specialized plants may not be available in local nurseries, larger natives may require more space than is available, or there may be local restrictions on landscape appearance that prohibit use of plants that look “messy.”

An alternative is to grow common landscape plants. The question then becomes which ones will suit your local pollinators.

In a recent paper in the journal Functional Ecology, Mihail Garbuzov and Francis L. W. Ratnieks quantified how attractive common landscape plants were to bees and other flying insects in a scientific way. They carried out their studies in Great Britain, but give good suggestions that could be used anywhere. For example, geraniums (flowers of the genus Pelargonium) are not a good choice for a pollinator garden no matter where you live because the flowers produce no nectar.

In this video Dr. Ratnieks explains their techniques and some of their findings:

Did you notice how many of the preferred plants were common herbs? Planting an herb garden would give a double benefit, being useful to your cooking and to pollinators.

The take home message is that spending some time getting to know the habits of your local pollinators before you plant your garden can go a long way towards helping them survive in the future.

What do you think? Are quick observations sufficient to make generalizations about pollinators or should there be more rigorous studies like this one by Garbuzov and Ratnieks?


Garbuzov, M., Ratnieks, F. L. W. (2014), Quantifying variation among garden plants in attractiveness to bees and other flower-visiting insects. Functional Ecology, 28: 364–374.

Cactus Flower Pollination and Pollinator Week Events

Did you know that this week is Pollinator Week?

If you live in Arizona, you might want to check out the National Pollinator Week celebration at Tohono Chul in Tucson. It is going to be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday June 22, 2013. The first 50 families attending the event will get to make their own native bee habitat to take home. There will be special showings of Wings of Life, a new film from Disneynature narrated by Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, and a talk by bee specialist Dr. Stephen Buchmann of Pollinator Partnership. Sounds like a great way to spend the day!

If you don’t live in Arizona, you can find your state on the clickable map at to locate events near you.

When talking about pollinators, we often hear that they are responsible for the viable production of about one third of our food supply. Although we think of grocery store staples like apples, squash and almonds as foodstuffs that require pollination, cactus fruit – or “tunas” as they are also called – are another source of food that requires pollinators.


It is almost impossible to look into a cactus flower and not find a bee. Most of them are covered with copious amounts of pollen.


The flowers of the cactus genus Opuntia even have a special mechanism that causes the stamens to move when they are touched. You can see it in action in this video.

The movement of the stamens is thought to add more pollen to any pollinators that enter the flower.


A layperson might say it’s almost like the bee is getting a “hug” from the flower.


The end result is that the flowers are pollinated and produce lovely red fruit that make delicious jelly and syrup.

Even if they aren’t consumed by humans, some 75% of flowering plants need an animal to carry pollen from flower to flower. Pollination is an incredibly important service that we need to be aware of and support.

What are you doing to celebrate pollinator week?
Wings of Life is also available on DVD/Bluray.

(Affiliate link to Amazon)

Gardening For Pollinators: How to Encourage Bees

In Eric Grissell’s book, Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens he laments that people who are interested in gardening for wildlife invariably choose to encourage butterflies or birds. With all the press about the honey bees suffering from colony collapse disorder, however, there seems to be an upswing in interest in gardening for pollinators. Although the term pollinator does encompass butterflies and birds, bees are generally included as well. In fact, a group in Texas has a new certification program for “bee-friendly gardens.”

What do you need to provide to encourage bees in the garden? Most wildlife gardens concentrate on three areas :  food, water and shelter.

1. Food – Planting Flowers for Bees

Bees collect pollen and nectar for food, which is why they are great pollinators. Planting an array of flowers to bloom throughout the growing season is a good start for providing nectar and pollen they need. Sunflowers are a good choice because they will grow in a wide variety of areas and attract a number of different kinds of bees.

The types of flowers to provide will depend on your local growing conditions. Check with local botanical gardens, nurseries, beekeeping associations, and native plant societies for recommendations. Don’t forget that trees may produce significant nectar and pollen for bees (particularly early in the season), even though they may not have large, showy flowers.

If you plant trees and other flowering plants that supply nectar for well-known bees, like honey bees,

often the lesser-known, but still important solitary bees will also use them.

Sometimes all you need to do is leave the wildflowers you already have.

For example, the humble dandelion tends to flower late into fall and even winter, providing an important late season resource for bees.

In addition to nectar and pollen, bees may also gather a number of different materials from leaves, including nesting components, resin or sap.

2. Providing water for bees

Bees need water to drink. These honey bees are standing on lily pad leaves floating in a pool and drinking the water at the edges. They will use various damp puddles or places where they can walk to edge of the water as water sources. In his book, Eric Grissell shows a simple solar-powered fountain he devised to splash water on rocks. Properly designed and maintained, a water fountain or pool can be a source of a drink for many types of animals.

3. Providing shelter for bees

Providing shelter for bees does not have to be difficult and can even be artistic. Sometimes it may be as simple as leaving a few flower stalks in your garden. For example, our hollyhock stems provide an ideal home for small species of carpenter bees (Genus Ceratina).

Mason bee houses are very popular with both humans and bees, as we see with this video of an European species they have identified as red orchard mason bees (Osmia rufa) colonizing a new bee condo. Listen to them “talk!”

In Tucson, Arizona we have an artist and landscape designer, Greg Corman at Zen Industrial, who does bee habitats that double as sculptures. Some of his bee and lizard habitats are on display at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

(Robert Engelhardt made this solitary bee house. Photograph from Wikimedia).

A quick search with Google can yield many places to learn more about bee houses or condos:

Another way to provide a place to live is to leave a patch of bare ground for digger bees to nest. You will need to research the requirements for your area, but leaving a small patch of native soil undisturbed may be helpful.

4. Get to know your local bees

To have a successful pollinator garden, it really pays to get to know what kind of solitary bees live in your area and what their requirements are. The more you know about the tiny bees that share you yard, the better you will be able to meet their needs and the more you will appreciate them.

Now, those of you who have been following my blog will probably know where I’m going next. Yes, I’m talking about gardening for ants. Do you think it is possible to garden for ants? Stay tuned…