Bees are quite the amazing pollinators. These insects are responsible for the pollination of many of our flowers and foods, but there are many other animals who also play a part in making these things possible that don’t get the credit they deserve.
We need all the help we can get from these little guys if we want to keep enjoying the fruits, vegetables and other produce we consume annually, and in a harsh world where pesticides and habitat loss is make surviving extra difficult, they need all the help they can get from us too. From bumblebees to honeybees, wasps to butterflies, and even some birds and rodents, pollinators come in all shapes and sizes.
This article covers some of the animals you might encounter in your garden, how to attract them and encourage them to stay, what flowers and other plants they prefer and how you can create a garden that will support a healthy ecosystem.
Honeybees and Bumblebees
There are 22,000 known species of bee, but their numbers are dramatically falling. All bees are vitally important to this planet and all those who inhabit it, although some are deemed “better” at their pollination jobs than others; honeybees for example typically fare better than bumblebees. But we must welcome all bees with open arms, for each one does a very essential job, and with an increasing number of threats such as colony collapse disorder and pesticide poisoning, they are really struggling to survive. Luckily, there is lots of information available for helping bees, and more tips to come on how to encourage them to thrive.
Bees prefer ‘single’ flowers, that stand alone and are well open to allow their stout bodies to access them – some great examples include daisies, dahlias, and irises. Double flowers, where there are lots of folds and structure, are more difficult for these insects, and are often ignored in favour of the more easily crawlable flowers. They also enjoy tubular flowers, which allow them to crawl deep inside the plant to feast on the nectar – flowers such as snapdragons, foxgloves, and honeysuckle are perfect. Bees seem to be especially attracted to the colour purple, which is likely why they are often seen buzzing around lavender bushes. Other purple favourites include alliums, thistles, heather and geraniums.
Hoverflies are masters of disguise – they look just like a bee or wasp until they land and you can see them better. They are incredibly docile and lack any sting or fangs whatsoever. They are also very important pollinators, that are responsible for visiting flowers all over the world. They do such a great job in fact that they are widely considered to be the second best pollinators in the world, after wild bees.
Another important fly to consider is the humble midge – we swat at their pesky antics in mild weather and probably swallow more than we care to think about when we’re trying to get about outside, but without these little blighters we would not have chocolate; midges pollinate the tiny white flowers of the cacao plant, enabling the tree to produce fruit. That in itself is worth a mention – thank you midges, and we promise not to get annoyed with you again.
Pollinating flies don’t seem to be fussy – they have been spotted buzzing away on almost any plant. Chances are when creating a garden designed to attract the other pollinators on this list, these guys will also show up, eagerly getting in on the action. Like most insects, they benefit greatly from wildflowers that we often classify as weeds – dandelions, yarrow, buttercups and trefoil being just some examples.
Unlike most wasps, which have a pretty poor reputation for stinging and ruining picnics, the pollen wasps are vegetarian like their bee cousins, being much more mellow in personality and happy to go about their business eating nectar and pollen rather than terrorising children. Hooray!
The bad news is that they are quite hard to tell apart from “normal” wasps. However, you don’t have to worry about that – all wasps have a place in our ecosystem, and if you leave them alone, they’ll not harm you. If you are worried about wasp nests on your property, there are humane ways to remove them. But, for the most part, wasps are harmless, and pollen wasps, in particular, do a wonderful job, rivalling that of our honeybees.
Wasps, like bees, have very high demands for energy, and as a result favour plants that yield a lot of pollen and nectar. They prefer many of the same plants as bees, but some species of wasp specialise in certain flowers, such as orchids, beardtongue, and waterleaf.
Butterflies and Moths
Butterflies are beautiful additions to any garden, and they also pollinate our flowers, along with their cousins the day moths. Moths also have the added benefit of pollinating nocturnal plants, which release their scents and nectar at night when most other pollinators are asleep. Butterflies and moths are not as effective at pollination as bees. However, any little bit helps, and we are certainly grateful when a butterfly or moth visits our garden!
Butterflies and day-flying moths enjoy many of the same plants as bees, but due to their long tongues they can also make good use of many flowers that bees cannot easily reach. Some suitable plants include bluebells, clover, marigolds, pansies, and wallflowers. Night-flying moths rely on flowers that open in the evening and at night – examples include jasmine, some orchids, rain lilies, moonflowers, and evening stock.
Beetles comprise the largest set of pollinating insects and were one of the first to ever begin pollinating plants – in existence! They are responsible for pollinating 88 percent of the 240,000 flowering plants globally – that’s a lot of work, and so underappreciated too! Beetles are a handsome visitor to any garden, and despite their often slow and bumbling appearances, do a fantastic job at getting around fruits and flowers, pollinating them, and allowing the whole ecosystem to benefit.
Beetles have a strong preference for fruit plants, and can often be seen eating from both the fruits and the flowers. They don’t seem to discriminate, being found on both single flowers such as magnolias and lilies, to clustered flowers such as goldenrod and yarrow. Beetles enjoy many weed species, and like the other pollinators mentioned, will benefit greatly from their inclusion in the garden.
How You Can Help
These insects all have the same basic requirements to survive, thrive, and keep on being awesome – they need food, protection, and a place to breed and lay eggs.
For more tips on how to make your garden friendly for pollinators, check out these resources:
- Be a Bee’s Best Friend
- 8 Ways You Can Save Monarch Butterflies
- Attracting Butterflies to Your Garden
- What Is an Insect Hotel, How to build one, and why you’d want to
- Plant These Four Flowers Now!