Knowing what food sources and living conditions each of our pollinating creatures requires can do more than just entice them to our growing spaces: it encourages them to stay and helps some whose populations are struggling to thrive.

Monarch butterfly at milkweed illustration

Illustration © Holly Ward Bimba, excerpted from The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

Without pollinators we would have few plants on earth, especially food-producing plants used by humans and animals. Some plants are pollinated by wind, and some are self-pollinating, but the greatest percentage of plants rely on a creature to pollinate the flowers so that the plant will then go on to produce fruit with seeds.

When it comes to the variety of creatures that pollinate, well, that’s a very big group, and some of them will likely surprise you. Of course, most of us know that domestic honeybees are great pollinators, but there are loads of other types of bees that pollinate plants, many of them much more efficient at the process than honeybees. There are butterflies and moths, some beetles and wasps (which can also be beneficial insects to help with insect pest management), and even some types of houseflies that help out in the process of pollination. Of course, those beautiful hummingbirds and very useful bats are also important pollinators.

Bat House

Bug Patrol HQ: The bat house at Tammi’s farm. Photo courtesy of the author.

Pollinators live in all sorts of interesting places. Many are ground dwelling creatures, especially native bees, most of which live solitary lives and do not sting. There are other pollinators that live inside hollowed out branches. Bumblebees even recycle empty mouse nests into bumblebee nesting homes. You can buy or build nesting boxes for mason bees and hang them up around your gardens. Chris made some really cool mason bee boxes for our garden the year before last.We should all do everything we can to encourage and attract as many different types of pollinators into our garden landscapes as possible because each creature has its own preference about what types of plants it likes to pollinate.

Butterflies need flowers that are flattish in shape and they are drawn to bright colors like pink, purple, and yellow. Flies are partial to whitish and green flowers, whereas bumblebees do a great job with tubular or trumpet-shaped flowers like penstemons and snapdragons. Bumblebees see the colors blue and yellow, but not red, so they will visit the flowers on lavender, hyssop, and winter savory, and of course vegetables like squash, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. Hummingbirds pollinate tubular flowers also, but ones that are mostly red and pink in color. Bats are great for night-blooming plants like yuccas, and they are partial to many tropical and sub-tropical plants like passionflower vines. If you have a wide variety of flowering plants with all different shapes, colors, and blooming times, you will be able to attracts both domestic honeybees and native pollinators into your garden.

mason bee nesting boxes

Mason bee nesting boxes built by Chris Hartung. Photo courtesy of the author.

It is ever so important to avoid using all pesticides around your garden space if possible — even organic pesticides. All pesticides have the potential to kill or harm pollinators. If you absolutely feel you must use a pesticide, choose an organic option and read the label completely before you apply it to make sure you are applying it correctly and at the time of day when it will have the least impact on pollinating creatures as possible. Never use any systemic pesticides like those that contain neonicotinoid ingredients because these pesticides stay in all parts of the plant (roots, leaves, flowers, seeds, nectar) for at least 12 months, and maybe longer. That means that a pollinator working the flowers of a plant treated with a systemic pesticide will be exposed to that pesticide when the plant blooms and the pollinator will likely die or be seriously harmed.

Encouraging pollinators of all types, especially native pollinators, isn’t difficult to do when you have a bit of foresight into what they like. Encouraging them with a smorgasbord of flowers to forage on, providing places where they can nest, and making sure that they have a pesticide-free environment to visit will mean that you will see a lot of them in your garden. They will be going about their work of pollinating your flowers, and if those flowers are fruits and vegetable plants, you can expect an improved harvest yield as the direct result of their hard work.

Tammi Hartung

Tammi Hartung is the author of Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine, Homegrown Herbs, and The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener. She has been growing and working with… See Bio

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The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

by Tammi Hartung

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