Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: What do pollinators need to thrive in an urban garden?

In order to thrive in an urban setting, pollinators have some specific needs. Pollinators’ basic needs are identical to the basic needs of all life: food and shelter. Pollinators need flowers that are rich in nectar and pollen, and that are easily accessible. There are many different pollinator species, including bees, wasps, flies, beetles, ants, and hummingbirds, therefore making it beneficial to provide a wide range of flowers.

You can potentially limit the number of possible pollinators by your choices of plants. Bright coloured flowers are most attractive to pollinators, especially blue, red, yellow, and violet.1 Native plants are better able to provide for pollinators because they are better adapted to the area.2

Ants like to visit inconspicuous, low-growing flowers, for example, the alpine nailwort and cascade knotweed.

Bees are attracted to bright white, yellow, blue or violet flowers, which often have “nectar guides,” lines on the flower that point to the nectar source. Bees with short tongues prefer clusters of little flowers, such as marigold, daisy, and phlox.

Beetles tend to visit larger dull white or green flowers, that have a flat shape and the anther and stigma exposed, with accessible pollen. These flowers include the sunflower, aster, butterfly weed and rose.

Butterflies are often attracted to large and bright red, orange, yellow, pink, blue or purple flowers, which often have a landing platform for the insect. Such flowers include zinnia, goldenrod, honeysuckle and daisy. Butterflies also require food for larvae, preferring such plants as milkweed, aster, lupine, violets and black-eyed susans.

Moths are attracted to pale flowers with strong, sweet smells, that have large nectar sources, but limited pollen. These flowers are usually open in late afternoon or in the evening, and include evening primrose, morning glory, yucca and gardenia.

Flies prefer pale and dull green, white or cream flowers, but sometimes like dark purple and brown flowers. The flower shapes that flies like best are bowl shapes, funnel-like shapes or complex shapes.

Hummingbirds usually pollinate large showy scarlet, orange, red or white flowers, which usually do not have a strong scent. For example: honeysuckle, sage, fuchsia, fireweed, columbine, and nasturtium.

Lastly, bats tend to visit large, showy flowers that are dull white, cream, green, or purple, and typically open during the night. The flowers are usually firm and have an open shape. Bats are not a significant pollinator in Canada, but in the United States they are important for plants such as giant saguaro cacti, and agave.3

Pollinators also require various places to find shelter and to build nests. A nest is important not only as a place to live, but also as a place in which to lay eggs, and later allow larvae to develop away from harm. The nesting sites of pollinators range considerably. Bees alone, for example, can nest in hives, in hollow twigs or sticks, in logs or snags, and in the soil or ground.4 Pollinators will thrive better in an area that is sheltered from strong wind, and rain, with a mix of sunshine and shade throughout the day.5

  1. “Pollinators in the Garden.” Reiman Gardens Iowa State University: 2002. http://www.extension.iastate.edu/Publications/RG212.pdf
  2. “Facts from the NAS National Research Council Study: Status of Pollinators in North America.” http://www.pollinator.org/resources.htm
  3. “General Features of Plants that Provide Habitat and Food for Pollinators.” National Biological Information Infrastructure. http://nbii.gov/portal/server.pt?CommunityID=989&spaceID=5&parentname=&control=SetCommunity&parentid=&in_hi_userid=292&PageID=0&space=CommunityPage
  4. “Pollinator Conservation: Nest for Solitary Bees.” The Xerces Society. http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/nests_for_native_bees_fact_sheet_xerces_society.pdf
  5. “Pollinator Friendly Practices.” North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. https://pollinator.org/nappc/PDFs/PollinatorFriendlyPractices.pdf p 2.