It’s not just honeybees and butterflies

Story by Helen Newling Lawson

Helping pollinators is a hot gardening trend right now (dare we say there’s a “lot of buzz”?). Initiatives such as the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge are bringing attention to the need to create habitats for at-risk pollinators such as monarch butterflies and honeybees. But many other species – including some surprising ones like flies, moths, and hummingbirds – also act as pollinators, and also need our help.

Native Bees
Honeybees were actually imported from Europe almost 400 years ago. Our continent was already richly populated with nearly 4000 species of bees, all perfectly adapted to pollinate our native flora. Now that commercial honeybees are threatened by colony collapse disorder (CCD), we need to think about how we can help these native species back get back their rightful place in the natural order.

Several of these bees are ideal gardening companions. In fact, they are far more effective pollinators than honeybees, who moisten the pollen they collect in order to bring back as much as possible. Without a hive to defend, solitary bees like mason bees and leafcutter bees are far less likely to sting, and are non-venomous if they do. And since they don’t make honey, they collect just enough dry pollen on their hairy bellies to feed their own young, allowing the rest to drift where it may.

The blueberry bee is just one of the thousands of other bees in addition to honeybees who need our help. This species and its close relative, the blue orchard bee, are effective pollinators of commercial food crops. Photo by Jack Dykinga for the Agricultural Research Service.

Turns out, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and blueberries need a certain level of vibration in order to shake their pollen loose. Guess who has evolved to have just right amount of “buzz” to make the magic happen? That’s right – the humble bumble. 

You can encourage bumblebees to buzz pollinate your crops by building them wooden nest boxes filled with bedding ( has plans online). These will replicate the abandoned rodent holes their colonies would normally seek.

Bumblebees need a long season of flowers, from spring-flowering plants like this Allium through to late fall bloomers. Bonus: your garden will be beautiful longer, too! Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Mason Bees
True to their name, female mason bees build their nests by “mortaring” mud around each egg, laid in individual chambers. They are so reliant on a particular quality of mud that at least one online retailer sells both dried mud powder and a special mud holder to help encourage these native pollinators. 

At the very least, allow for an area of exposed, moist soil in your garden. A simple solution might be to leave the earth surrounding your birdbath unmulched. Each time you fill the birdbath (bees need this water, too), the overspill will create a muddy patch. 

This will also benefit butterflies, who must collect minerals from mud in a behavior called “puddling” in order to mate. 

Mason bees normally build these egg chambers inside a single, larger cavity, such as a hollowed tree trunk (unlike carpenter bees, they are not strong enough to drill their own holes). You can easily recreate a suitable nesting place, and the article beginning on page 30 will show you how! They fly less than 300 feet from their nests, so position them where you want them to pollinate. “Solitary” refers to how they nest and raise their young, not their personality: Mason bees are happy to have neighbors, so you can place multiple nesting sites side-by-side.

Providing the nesting materials pollinators need, like exposed soil for this mustached mud bee, is a sustainable gardening practice that helps ensure future generations of garden helpers. Photo courtesy of the Agricultural Research Service.

Ground-Dwelling Native Bees
Many native bees nest underground, forming complex burrows. Leave a patch of bare soil in a sunny area, and to prevent disturbing their hard work avoid tilling and other ground-disturbing activities (you’ll also limit weed seed germination this way).

Night-flying moths add more “pollination hours” to your garden. In return, they need late-opening flowers and are drawn to lighter colored and strongly sweet-scented blooms.

Agastache is great for attracting nocturnal moths like the sphinx moth. Photo courtesy of

A number of birds are also pollinators, including hummingbirds. They prefer flowers with a tubular shape, such as perennial sages (Salvia spp.) and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). 

Helen Yoest of the non-profit Bee Better clarifies these are “not your common housefly! These are gentle bee lookalikes including syphid, overfly, midge, and flower fly. These flies go for less glamorous flowers.”

What About Bats?
If you’re like me, you’ve heard that bats are also pollinators. And that’s true – but only in the southwestern U.S.

However, supporting pollinators also means eliminating pesticide sprays in your yard. So you may want to try hosting some bats for natural mosquito control. Kirk Lucius, a Forsyth County Master Gardener who has created many bat nesting sites, recommends the building plans available online at

“Bug hotels” like this creative one are a fun backyard building project. Photo by Helen Newling Lawson.

Planting for Pollinators
The key here is diversity. Some bees, such as mason bees and bumblebees, are generalists, and need many types of flowers. Others are specialists, relying on particular flowers. Some bees have short tongues and some have long, each requiring a different flower shape. It’s best to plant a wide range of flowers to help as many different species as possible.

Planting a diverse mix of plants will ensure a healthy mix of pollinator species in your garden – but be sure to eliminate pesticide sprays! Photo by Helen Newling Lawson.


For more information:

Pollinator Plants for the Southeast Region (
National Wildlife Federation – Native Plants
Selecting Plants for Pollinators (

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