Bring Your Garden to Life with Pollinators

Nothing is more delightful in the spring than a garden in bloom! Except perhaps a garden with butterflies flitting about from blossom to blossom sipping nectar as they go. Not to mention their fascinating little caterpillars, each one awaiting its turn to “Spread your wings and prepare to fly, for you have become a butterfly,” as Mariah Carey sings.

While butterflies dine, they are also pollinating the plants, helping them produce the seeds that will become the next generation.

Want to attract butterflies, bees, birds and other pollinators to your garden?  If you grow the plants they love, they will come. We recommend plants that are native to your area because the caterpillars of some pollinators such as monarchs need to feed on specific plants like native milkweed. Native plants also require less water and do better in the soils and climate they’ve adapted to.

Ready to get started attracting pollinators to your garden? Here are a few butterflies, bees, moths, beetles and birds to consider.

This beloved butterfly needs no introduction. Who has not been inspired by the story of this tiny animal that travels thousands of miles between its summer and winter habitats? We can all help make the monarch butterfly’s migration successful by planting common, showy, butterfly, swamp and other native milkweed species in our gardens. 

Did you know there are more than 4,000 native bee species in North America? And this American bumblebee is one of them. Bumblebees are excellent pollinators. Their furry coats easily pick up pollen, they move fast and are around from early spring into fall.  But food can be hard to come by in the spring, so plant flowers that bloom early; wild geranium, smooth penstemon and cream wild indigo are a few to consider.

Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillars are fun. They start out looking like bird droppings, but as they mature, they develop two big blue, yellow and black false eyespots on their bodies, which they use to scare off birds and other predators. They eat the leaves of wild cherry, birch and other trees. Butterfly milkweed is a favorite summer nectar plant for the adults.

When you think about pollinators, you may not think about flies, but you should!  Syrphid flies, also called flower flies, are the most diverse and common flower-visiting flies. They look like bees and wasps, but don’t sting. And by mimicking stinging insects, they protect themselves from birds that will think twice before dining on them. The larvae of many species of flower flies prey on aphids and other plant-sucking bugs, so it’s good to have them in your garden. Plant asters, sunflowers, yellow coneflower and phlox if you’d like them to pay a visit.

If you want to attract the lovely ruby-throated hummingbird to your garden (and who wouldn’t!), you’ll need to plant red, orange and purple tubular flowers like columbine, cardinal flower and wild bergamot. If you’re lucky enough to see this hummingbird in your garden, watch it lap up the nectar by flicking its long tongue deep into the flower while hovering over it before darting off to the next one.

Speaking of hummingbirds, if you see an odd-looking one in your garden, look closer.  It could be a hummingbird sphinx moth. They fly like hummingbirds and also hover over flowers to sip nectar with their long tongues. If you listen closely, you will hear their wings hum. Hummingbird sphinx moths are particularly attracted to phlox, beebalm, honeysuckle and verbena flowers.

If you’ve ever gotten up close and personal with a goldenrod flower, you’ve probably seen this little critter. The goldenrod soldier beetle is one of many soldier beetle species in North America. They are related to fireflies but don’t light up. They are good to have around because they not only feed on and help pollinate goldenrod, milkweed and rattlesnake master, but also eat aphids and other garden pests.

The lovely red admiral will sip nectar from common milkweed and asters. But what they really love is fermenting fruit. Got a plum or apple you forgot to eat that is starting to rot?  Toss it in the garden and keep an eye on it to see what shows up.

When you think about bees, you probably think about bee hives. But about 70 percent of our native bees nest in the ground. This metallic green halictid bee, also known as a sweat bee, digs a little burrow in the ground for its young. Sweat bees are not picky about which flowers they feed on, but if you’d like to attract them to your garden, leave a bare spot of soil in your garden for their nests.

Unlike many butterflies, the spring azure lays its eggs on the flower buds of a variety of woody shrubs including dogwoods and New Jersey tea, as well as on lupine and sunflowers.  Its caterpillars mostly feed on flowers and fruits rather than leaves, but they won’t eat enough to do any damage. Keep an eye out for this lovely blue butterfly in early spring.

Our Go Wild with Native Gardening site is a good place to start. Interested in learning more about supporting wildlife habitat in your own backyard? Check out Habitat Network, a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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