Pollination occurs many different ways, most often through bees, birds, butterflies, bats, moths or the wind. Ninety percent of all flowering plants rely on animal pollination to reproduce, including about a third of the food we eat. Many fruit, vegetable, grain, nut, and bean crops would die off if not for the hard work of bees - work valued at as much as $217 billion worldwide. In the last few decades, however, these populations have been declining due to disease, parasites, habitat loss, and pesticide poisoning. They need your help! Follow these tips to create a pollinator-friendly space in even the smallest of back yards.
Plant trees and shrubs of varying heights to provide year-round nesting areas and protection from predators and severe weather. If you can learn to tolerate a bit of a mess, leave dead snags, leaf and plant litter, and open patches of dirt for ground nesters. Bee boxes and insect hotels are a great way to attract non-aggressive, solitary bees. They're cheap to construct and a great project for kids!
Birds and insects need a constant source of fresh water. Take advantage of a natural stream, build a small pond, or add a bird bath to your garden to keep them happy. Bees and butterflies, specifically, require shallow or sloping pools where they can perch to take a drink without drowning. And butterflies LOVE mud puddles, where they go to sip up mineral-rich water. Naturally-concave rocks serve as great water puddling stations scattered around the garden.
Fallen and fermenting fruit can feed beetles, butterflies, and bees while flowers provide valuable nectar and pollen sources for foraging insects. Plant a diversity of annuals and perennials to attract a diversity of pollinators. Choosing plants with varying colors, forms, heights, fragrances, and bloom season will guarantee a richer habitat for vulnerable animals and insects. Ideally, a pollinator garden should have multiple plant species blooming at all times during the growing season. And when you can, use natives. Native plants best support native pollinators, and generally require less water. That said, herbs and annuals like sunflowers, zinnias, chives, mint, and lavender are excellent food sources as well, so sprinkle those in here and there to boost foraging potential. When designing a pollinator garden, group each plant species together in large swaths. This maximizes an insect's chance to gather more pollen and nectar per visit, as it doesn't have to learn how to enter a new flower every time. Don't forget to include some plant species that serve as a host or food source for larvae. Plants in the Asclepius genus are extremely valuable host plants for butterfly larvae, especially monarchs.
As a general rule, steer clear of all pesticide use. Pollinators are highly sensitive to these chemicals, and just one misapplication can decimate your garden's insect population. Work with nature instead of against it. Implement an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program and learn how to attract beneficials to your garden. This will go far in maintaining the balance between good bugs and nasty pests without the use of harsh chemicals. Site your garden in a sunny spot that's protected from strong winds, and keep invasive weeds under control.
There are lots of online resources you can turn to when designing a pollinator garden. This is a great website to find very thorough information specific to your ecoregion (here's Central Oregon), and this handy little poster from Lolo National Forest is my favorite as a general reference. As far as the best plants to attract pollinators, read on below!
Hopservatory Manager, NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador