As your garden comes alive for the summer, you’ll likely start to see bees buzzing around your flowers and food crops. These pollinators get all the credit for keeping your garden producing, but did you know that other animals help pollinate flowers too?
Bats, birds, butterflies, and insects play a role in pollinating flowers alongside bees. While bees are by far the most commonly recognized pollinators, other insects that help out include wasps, hornets, flies, beetles, and more.
These creatures are all attracted to different types of flowers, so by planting a variety of blooms, you can ensure that your garden attracts a range of pollinators.
What insects pollinate flowers?
When most people think of pollinators, they think of honeybees. And there’s a good reason for it.
Honeybees are some of the most efficient pollinators, pollinating approximately 80% of flowering plant species. One study found that honeybees alone are responsible for 39% of pollination activity.
Not native to the Americas, honeybees were first introduced to the New World by the pilgrims. However, as many of us know, honeybee populations are on the decline due to habitat loss, diseases, and pesticide use.
This spells trouble for backyard gardens and large-scale crop production alike, as reliance on a single pollinator species puts flowering plants and fruiting crops at risk if honeybees disappear.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other pollinators that are just as efficient at pollinating, some more so, than honeybees.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common alternate pollinator species, what makes them unique, and how you can attract them to your backyard cut flower garden.
|Pollinator||Preferred color||Flower shape||Flower examples|
|Honeybees||white, blue||various shapes||lavender, sunflower, borage|
|Solitary bees||blue, yellow, white||small blossoms and clusters||tansy, Queen Anne’s lace|
|Wasps, hornets||blue, purple, yellow, white||small blossoms and clusters||yarrow, borage|
|Flies||purple, brown, white||various shapes||sunflower, dill, alyssum|
|Butterflies||yellow, orange, pink||flat or tubular blooms||zinnia, cosmos|
|Moths||white, yellow, pink||flat or tubular blooms||jasmine, honeysuckle|
|Beetles||white, yellow||large, flat blooms||sunflowers, goldenrod|
|Hummingbirds||red, purple||flat or tubular blooms||salvia, nasturtium, honeysuckle|
|Bats||white, pale colors||funnel or tubular||agave, mango, nicotiana|
Creating habitats for these pollinators helps preserve these species and ensures valuable flowers, fruiting trees, and vegetable gardens can continue to be pollinated and reproduce even in the face of declining honeybee populations.
While honeybees are non-native species, solitary bees are native bees that live on their own instead of in hives.
As native species, solitary bees are often better adapted to North American habitats and have evolved alongside native plant species, making them more efficient pollinators.
One study found that mason bees pollinate far more quickly and thoroughly than honeybees in a side-by-side comparison.
Surprisingly, over 90% of bees are actually solitary bees, a category that includes mason bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, and miner bees.
Because they don’t live in hives and don’t produce honey, solitary bees spend more time pollinating, meaning they can cover a small garden space in a shorter period than honeybees.
What’s more, solitary bees are less aggressive and are not as adept at flying, so they are more likely to remain in a backyard habitat.
Solitary bees prefer to frequent similar flowers as honeybees, with their favorite being blue, purple, yellow, or white flowers that grow in small clusters.
To further encourage solitary bees in your backyard, consider adding a nesting box or bundling pieces of bamboo together and hanging it beneath the canopy of an evergreen bush or tree.
Wasps and hornets
Wasps and hornets have a bad reputation, but it’s somewhat unnecessary. While wasps and hornets can be aggressive and sting unprovoked, most of the time, they are happy to leave you alone, and they are actually excellent pollinators.
Differing primarily in size and color, wasps are smaller with yellow and black striping, while hornets are larger and boast white and black coloration. Both insects have hair on their bodies that help them pick up and transfer pollen from plant to plant while they’re busy looking for nectar to help fuel their energy needs.
Unlike bees, most wasps and hornets are valued primarily as specialist pollinators. Though they might not be as efficient at pollinating all types of flowers, certain types of wasps and hornets have evolved alongside particular plants and are actually the best pollinators for that plant species.
Often, these particular plants actually prefer wasps and hornets as pollinators, and their entire reproductive cycle depends on them.
While wasps and hornets can pollinate a wide range of flowers, they are drawn in by yarrow, celosia, borage, and tansies and prefer shallow blooms in blue, purple, yellow, and white.
For added garden benefits, wasps and hornets excel at keeping garden pests at bay and are considered beneficial insects that will keep flower and vegetable gardens blooming abundantly.
Second only to bees in terms of pollination activity, many types of flies are very effective pollinators and are often drawn to flowers that bees and other pollinators avoid.
Attracted specifically to dark brown and purple, funnel-shaped flowers flies often select blooms with musky or even putrid odors that bees find repellant. Fortunately, bees also like to visit more pleasant garden flowers such as alyssum or even fruit trees.
Common pollinator fly species include houseflies, blowflies, midges, and hoverflies. Although many flies don’t have the same fuzzy charm as bees, some fly species, like the syrphid fly, actually mimic bees and have similar yellow and black coloration.
Like wasps, fly species are often prized as specialist pollinators and surpass bees at pollinating particular plant species.
Gardeners’ favorites, butterflies, are some of the prettiest pollinators around.
Pollinating plants that bloom during daylight hours, butterflies seek out blooms in red, yellow, orange, pink, and purple and prefer broad, flat flower heads that leave room for their wide wingspans as they feed.
Butterflies also pollinate a wide range of plants, including many agricultural crops, making them vital to food security.
Famous butterfly-pollinated plants include milkweed, which supports monarch butterflies during their epic migrations. If you see green, white, and black striped caterpillars on your milkweed plant, rest easy knowing these are monarch larvae that will eventually metamorphose into beautiful butterflies.
Other butterfly favorites include many different nectar-rich species such as zinnias, black-eyed Susan, yarrow, and sunflowers.
Butterflies’ nocturnal cousins, moths are surprisingly efficient pollinators and are considered the best pollinators for evening- and night-blooming plants.
With fuzzy, low-hanging bodies and wide wings, moths cannot help but collect pollen as they fly from bloom to bloom. While most moths are active at night, certain species, like hawkmoths, are voracious eaters seen only during daylight hours.
Another moth you may see fluttering around the garden during the day is the white cabbage moth.
This moth is usually seen as a pest because it lays its eggs on brassicas and cabbage plants, where their larvae eat the leaves. The larvae are small green worms that hide on the underside of plant leaves.
However, the white cabbage moth has another trick up its sleeve: it pollinates flowers. So if you see cabbage moths in your garden, try to avoid killing them unless you’ve got plenty of other pollinator activity.
Preferring fragrant, night-blooming, nectar-rich flowers with white or yellow blossoms, moths pollinate most of the same flowers as honeybees, which can help mitigate the threat posed by the current decline in honeybee populations.
If you want to attract moths to your garden, try planting crowd favorites like gardenia, jasmine, and honeysuckle. Avoid creating light pollution by turning off outdoor lighting when not in use.
Many other insect species are known as “accidental pollinators.” As they feed on flower nectar, they end up transferring pollen from plant to plant and inadvertently pollinate plants along the way.
Ants are specialist pollinators who have mastered pollinating only a single type of plant. They love nectar, so you’ll often see them inside squash blooms, collecting this sweet liquid.
Beetles are specially adapted to target certain flower types, with yarrow and sunflowers being crowd favorites. These wide, flat blooms are more accessible for a beetle’s relatively large size. Smaller beetles love to visit fuzzy, tiny blossoms on flowers like goldenrod and spiraea.
Ladybugs are perhaps one of the most recognizable members of the beetle family. Ladybugs are great garden pollinators, as well as excellent hunters of aphids, one of the most common garden pests.
While not as prevalent as bees or butterflies, some bird species are important pollinators, particularly those with long beaks that can reach the nectar at the bottom of deep flowers.
The most common pollinating bird is the hummingbird, which is attracted to tubular flowers in red and orange. Wide, flat blooms are also easily accessible by hummingbirds, so your best bet is to plant a range of bloom shapes.
Foxgloves, salvia, nasturtiums, and zinnias are some of a hummingbird’s favorite flowers to visit in any garden and offer tubular, round, and flat bloom shapes.
If you want to draw in birds, add feeders and a birdbath and plant your garden with flowers with brightly-colored blooms, such as black eyed Susan, hollyhocks, and delphinium.
With more than 1,300 known species worldwide, bats are some of the most diverse mammals on the planet.
While most people think of bats as spooky creatures of the night, these nocturnal flyers are actually gentle giants that play an essential role in ecosystems and gardens alike.
Like moths, bats are nocturnal pollinators that target night-blooming species of flowers, often with pale or white booms that are rich in nectar and fragrant.
Unlike moths, however, bats have a more expansive territory range and can pollinate many more flowers in a short time.
Some bat species, like the lesser long-nosed bat, are pollinators of funnel-shaped flowers such as four o’clocks, nicotiana, and honey-suckle.
If you live in the southwestern United States, you might even see bats pollinating your succulents and cacti as they search for rich nectar.
While great at pollinating many flowers, bats are particularly valued as pollinators for fruit trees such as mangoes and bananas. Bats are also one of the best ways to naturally control pesky insects in your yard, such as mosquitoes.
If you want to attract bats to your garden, consider adding a bat house, which can be ordered online or constructed at home using basic materials.
Are these pollinators as important as bees?
All pollinators, including bees, are vital to the environment, and their importance should not be diminished. While some pollinators may have a smaller range than bees and therefore be less efficient as pollen distributors, all pollinators are essential in their own way.
While honeybees are considered the most efficient pollinators around, alternative pollinators, like solitary bees, wasps, and moths, are often preferred as specialist pollinators, more active in general, and better adapted to changing climates.
One study that monitored pollinator activity in a specified area showed that honeybees were responsible for 39% of crop pollination.
Other solitary bees were found to have pollinated 23% of the crop yield, while the remaining 38% of pollination was completed by other pollinators like birds, bats, beetles, and butterflies.
But this was not due to increased honeybee activity, but rather it was attributed to the fuzzy bodies of honeybees which can’t help but pick up pollen.
Surprisingly, this study found that alternative pollinators actually visit more flowers in a single afternoon and that non-honeybee insects more readily pollinate some crops.
The study concluded that, ultimately, alternate pollinators are at least as efficient as honeybees at pollinating, if not more.
But in a time when honeybees, considered invaluable for crop pollination, are on the decline, the real blessing of alternate pollinators can be seen in their flexibility.
Studies have found that non-bee pollinators are less susceptible to environmental change and more willing to visit habitats that are no longer as naturalized due to housing developments, commercialization, and other effects of humans.
So, while all pollinators are important in their own way and contribute to the health of our ecosystems, it is clear that alternative pollinators play a crucial role in ensuring our gardens and crops continue to thrive in the face of change.
What can you do to help pollinators?
There are many things you can do to help pollinators, no matter where you live.
If you have a garden, consider planting native flowering plants, as these will be more attractive to local pollinators. You can also add a water source to your garden, as pollinators will appreciate a place to drink and cool off.
Avoid using pesticides in your garden, as these can be harmful to pollinators. Natural deterrents like garlic, cayenne pepper, and soap are more environmentally friendly options.
You can also build a bee hotel or bat house to provide shelter for pollinators, or simply put out a few bee houses and bat boxes for them to use.
Overall, while bees may receive the most attention as pollinators, there are many other creatures that play a crucial role in helping flowers reproduce.
Whether it’s bats, birds, butterflies, or beetles, these alternate pollinators contribute to the health of ecosystems and our environment in their own way. By taking steps to protect and support these important creatures, we can ensure that pollinators continue to thrive and play a vital role in our world for generations to come.
To learn even more about attracting pollinators and wildlife to your garden, check out this resource: Use Your Container Garden To Attract Pollinators: How & Why.