What is a Pollinator?

“Pollinator” is a bit of a buzzword right now, especially when it comes to sustainable landscaping and backyard habitats. If you’re just getting into habitat gardening, you may be wondering – “What is a pollinator?”

A Pollinator can be anything that carries pollen from one flower to another, causing it to be pollinated. This means that the flower can produce seed, helping the plant to reproduce. Pollinators can include wind and animals, but it mostly refers to bees, wasps, butterflies and moths in the sustainable landscaping context. Bees intentionally gather pollen; the others feed on nectar and pick up pollen on their feet unintentionally.

Why are Pollinators Important?

This is the next thing you may wonder, since they’re so often talked about in sustainable landscaping as a subject. Pollinators make it possible for plants to fruit – This includes all of the fruits humans consume, such as apples, oranges, peaches, cherries, etc – Without pollinators, it would be impossible for the trees to produce fruit.

Similarly, pollinators are very important for natural habitats. To adapt to constantly changing conditions, plants must reproduce by seed – This is why with a species with a large range like Redbuds, plants from southern sources won’t take the cold of the north, and ones from northern locales aren’t resistant to the heat and humidity of the south. These trees have adapted to their locations over thousands of years, and it took pollinators for them to be able to produce seed.

Do All Plants Need Pollinators?

Not all plants need pollinators, at least animal ones – Many plants, especially large forest trees, produce light pollen that drifts in the wind. When you see huge clouds of pollen drifting out of a pine tree in early June, you may go running for the allergy medicine, similarly with red maples in March. Most native perennials produce heavy, sticky pollen that pollinators like; these plants won’t cause any allergy issues.

A simple rule for selecting plants - If it makes you sneeze, it probably isn't a good pollinator plant!

How Can I Attract Pollinators to my Garden?

Food

The main thing pollinators require is a continuous food source through the season. This is why it is so important to include pollinator-friendly plants in your garden. Be sure to include a variety of flowering plants in your garden or landscape, focusing on species that produce pollen. You also need to make sure you’ve got something in bloom from early spring onwards.

Don’t Use Chemicals

This is probably the most important thing you can do to help out pollinator numbers. The heavy use of insecticides lately has caused significant decreases in numbers of pollinators – As important as they are for food production, that is a trend that needs to be reversed.

Don’t spray insecticides on your garden as soon as you see any sort of bug. Most gardens are able to sustain a little bit of damage from insects, and the more diversity you have, the more they balance themselves out. Usually in a garden, there’s just as many beneficial insects as there are damaging ones. If you see a lot of damage on your plants, you can always tip the balance a little by investing in some live biological pest control!

Make sure when you’re purchasing nursery stock that it hasn’t been treated with neonicotinid insecticides, or neonics – These systemic pesticides technically don’t enter in to the flowers of plants, but they have been observed to cause problems with bees. The last thing you want to do is plant a garden with the intent of helping out pollinators when the plants end up harming them!

Nesting Sites

Native solitary bees usually nest in old stumps and tree trunks. If you are really wanting to help them out, you can actually put up a specially designed Mason Bee House – These structures are specially made for solitary nesting bees. You may notice little bees on your flowers that are much smaller than honeybees – These bees are actually many times more efficient at pollenating flowers than European honeybees are!

I got a bee house on Amazon for the nursery to put up this spring – Doing some research on pollinators, I figured it would be good to support them around the nursery as much as possible to increase seed production on our plants. If you’re interested in getting a mason bee house for yourself, check out this one I picked up. They’re usually under $20 – click here to find out the current price over at Amazon. (An aside – I love Amazon! It’s been a huge resource for our sustainable landscaping initiative at the nursery! I’m working on putting together a kit list of everything we’ve been buying so you’ll have a good, quick-reference list of helpful tools for your landscaping.)

The houses look really intriguing – Put one on a post in your front yard, and you’ll have your neighbors turning to take a second look! Just explain the benefits of pollinators and point them to this post. You could start a pollinator revolution in your neighborhood!