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Attracting Pollinators to the Garden

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The goal of all living organisms is to produce offspring for the next generation. The bees, birds and butterflies in your garden are pollinating blossoms so the trees and plants can create fruits and seeds for their next generation.

The most noticeable pollinators are bees, certain flies, hummingbirds and butterflies. There also is a variety of insects, including beetles, that we need to look a little harder to see. Then there are the night-time pollinators such as moths and bats which we rarely see all.

Pollination is achieved by the transfer of pollen from the anthers (male organ) of a flower to the stigma (female organ) of the same or another plant’s flowers. The pollen grains that land on the stigma germinate and grow a pollen tube down through the style (stalk structure in female plants) and into the ovules (eggs). This results in fertilization which then leads to the production of fruits and seeds. It takes a pollinator to help make this event occur.

Plants have evolved to reward pollinators for visiting their flowers by providing sweet nectar or pollen. As pollinators visit flowers to sip nectar (a sugar source), or gather pollen (with protein, fats, and other nutrients) for themselves or their brood, pollen grains are dispersed among plants. So you can see the relationships that exist between flowering plants and pollinators are not casual. This necessary exchange of services has evolved over a long period of time.

Attracting and protecting pollinators in the garden is essential for the future of plants. Many pollinators are decreasing due to diseases, low food sources, climate changes or pesticides. What will not decrease is plants’ need for successful pollination from their associated pollinator.
More than 75 percent of flowering plants worldwide rely on animals for pollination; thus ecosystems around the earth are dependent on their services. In the United States, production of over one-third of the food we eat is dependent on one type of pollinator: bees. This statement alone should cause concern about protecting our pollinators. I have stopped using pesticides and have looked for food and water sources for my bees.

To take the first step in attracting pollinators to your garden, introduce pollinator-friendly plants. Choose plant varieties that will bloom from early spring to fall. Selecting plants with a staggered bloom sequence ensures food for each pollinator’s unique season.

Pollinator life cycles are often synchronized with their preferred plants’ flowering patterns. A large variety of flowers that offer nectar and/or pollen allows for greater pollinator diversity. For example, plant ornamental sages for bumblebees and hummingbirds and milkweed and yarrow for butterflies and bees.

Both birds and pollinating insects need water for survival. A shallow pan will keep the bees from drowning.
You will have more success with your pollinator garden if you implement these four steps: 1) Grow pollinator-preferred plant varieties. 2) Group flower varieties into patches. 3) Plant a sequence of nectar and pollen-producing varieties. 4) For the greatest success, target at least 20 different kinds of pollinator plants.)
This article was adapted from University of California ANR Publication 8498. This publication suggests many pollinator plants that are successful in most California gardens. It can be downloaded from
Jim Gormely is a UCCE Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who also raises honey bees. He lives in Columbia.