359-How to Attract Pollinators of Native Plants-Encore Presentation

| Care, Podcast

To attract a greater diversity of pollinators to a garden, there’s nothing better than native plants. In this encore episode, pollinator conservationist Heather Holm joins me to discuss the benefits of fostering the mutually beneficial relationship between native plants and the pollinators they coevolved with.

Heather is a biologist and award-winning author from Canada who now lives in Minnesota. She wrote her first book, “Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants,” based on her experience practicing ecological horticulture and working on ecological restoration. She found the diversity of insects that her native plant landscapes attracted was amazing. She has since penned the books “Wasps: Their Biology, Diversity, and Role as Beneficial Insects and Pollinators of Native Plants,” and Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide.” 


Heather Holm

Heather Holm is a biologist, pollinator conservationist and award-winning author.
(Photo Credit: Jo ana Kubiak)


In researching her first book, Heather observed the insects that visited the flowering plants in her home garden and elsewhere. She saw that the same species of insects kept visiting the same species of plants, and she knew this was not a coincidence. Investigating why sent her down a rabbit hole. “I’ve never really come out of the rabbit hole,” she says.

Bees and butterflies are first to come to mind when thinking of pollinators, but certain wasps, beetles, true bugs and flies all pollinate. Any organisms that visit flowering plants and effectively move pollen from flower to flower of the same species are considered pollinators. “You’re going to get the whole suite of unusual suspects if you look closely,” Heather says.

For a comprehensive overview of my conversation with Heather, you can read the show notes from the original presentation. Or you can read on for an abridged recap.

Why Pollinator Populations Are Declining

In Heather’s home state of Minnesota, pollinators are not as abundant as they once were. One reason for pollinator decline in Minnesota, and elsewhere, is climate change. Spring comes earlier and warms up faster, and fall lasts longer, with native plants holding leaves longer than they normally would.

Some adaptable species are increasing in abundance and expanding their ranges, Heather points out, but for many species, that’s not the case.

Habitat loss and pesticide use also play major roles in pollinator loss, and they are two things gardeners can do something about.

“We have all of these amazing opportunities for people to put more habitat in to support these pollinators,” Heather says.


Spraying pesticides on or near flowers can kill beneficial insects in addition to pests. (Photo Credit: Heather Holm)


Why Wild Pollinators Are Vital

It’s often said that one-third of all of the food we eat is thanks to honeybees — though there are no native honeybees in the United States. The honeybees here were imported from Europe. 

Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.  Our native bees are responsible for much of the pollination in agriculture and home gardens, and they are more important than they are given credit for. 

Heather says that, until recently, the diversity of wild bees in North America has been largely ignored. Priorities changed when colony collapse disorder began decimating honeybee populations and threatening the agriculture industry. Wild bees were seen as a viable alternative that could fill the void left by honeybees. 

The Mutually Beneficial Relationship Between Native Bees & Native Plants

In the Eastern United States, about one quarter to one third of native bee species are specialist pollinators of specific native plants, Heather notes. Without those native plants in our landscapes, their corresponding specialist bees won’t visit.

Some native bee host plants are also butterfly host plants, making them real powerhouse plants in terms of supporting pollinators, Heather says. Not only do these plants provide nutritious pollen for a specialist bee, but their leaves are consumed by butterfly caterpillars.


A Geranium Andrena (Andrena geranii) visits Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). This mining bee is a specialist of Hydrophyllum spp.

A Geranium Andrena (Andrena geranii) visits Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). This mining bee is a specialist of Hydrophyllum spp. (Photo Credit: Heather Holm)


Native Bee Groups

Native bees come in a variety of sizes, from as small as a grain of rice to the large carpenter bees found on the East Coast. They live in or overwinter in a variety of habitats, including underground, above ground, in cavities, in stems and more.

Bumblebees (Bombus): There are more than 20 species of bumblebees in the Eastern United States. Though most native bees are solitary creatures, bumblebees are social bees with small, annual colonies. 


Bombus bimaculatus female bee

A Bombus bimaculatus female. Bumblebees make up a bee genus that is considered polylectic, which means they collect pollen from the flowers of a variety of unrelated plants, though Heather notes that when looking at individual bumblebee species, their diet preferences are narrower. 
(Photo Credit: Heather Holm)


Carpenter bees (Xylocopa): These bees are not always welcome because they drill holes in barns, fences and any other wood they can find. Heather says carpenter bees are the only destructive nesters, while other native bees that nest above ground look for existing cavities rather than making their own.


male Monarda punctata bee

The eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) on spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata).
(Photo Credit: Heather Holm)


Mason bees (Osmia): Mason bees are so named because they collect mud to build their nests. This genus belongs to the Megachilidae family of bees, in which the females collect pollen on the bottom of their abdomens. Mason bees are particularly of interest to growers of fruit trees because they begin pollinating in early spring. 


Mason bee nest

Mason bees cap their nest cavities with mud.
(Photo Credit: Amy Prentice)


Leaf-cutter bees (Megachile): Also members of the Megachilidae family, leaf-cutter bees cut semicircles out of leaves and petals to build their nests. 


Leaf cutter

Semi-circles cut out of leaves are a sure sign of leaf-cutter bees.
(Photo Credit: Amy Prentice)


Sweat bees (Halictidae family): These bees got their name due to being attracted to perspiration. They are mostly ground-nesting.


Agapostemon virescens bee

Sweat bees like this Agapostemon virescens perform buzz pollination, or sonication, at such a high frequency that we humans can’t hear it.
(Photo Credit: Heather Holm)


Yellow-face bees (Hylaeus): These bees are nearly hairless and resemble small wasps. They are super tiny and nest in stem cavities.

What to Know About Wasps

Wasps are much more diverse than the stinging species that they are best known for. Wasps play many essential roles in the ecosystem. 

Adult wasps hunt insects and spiders that they take back to their nests to feed their broods. The adults have a vegetarian diet of sugary substances such as nectar, tree sap or honeydew. When they go after nectar, they incidentally pick up pollen on their bodies and pass it between flowers.

As predatory or parasitoid insects, wasps control the populations of other insects, including agricultural pests. For example, braconid wasps lay their eggs in tomato hornworms, killing the hornworms before they can destroy tomato plants. 


Parazumia symmorpha

Many nonaggressive wasps are similar in appearance to aggressive yellowjackets. This is a Parazumia symmorpha, a species of potter wasp, and it’s not aggressive. (Photo Credit: Heather Holm)


Pollinating Moths

Moths are nocturnal so they pollinate at night when we can’t see the work they do for us. Heather got herself a flashlight that shines red so she can look for moths in her garden at night. Most flower-visiting insects are red blind, she explains, so they won’t be scared off by the red light. 


Luna moth

Habitat loss and the use of pesticides have been devastating for luna moth populations. (Photo Credit: Amy Prentice)


Provide Blooms in Every Growing Season

Because of the wide variety of pollinator species and their different periods of activity from one species to the next, it’s important for your garden to have flowers in bloom from early spring through late fall. Pollinators won’t make a home in your garden if it is not in bloom when they are out and nesting.

Bees need both nectar and pollen, and not every flower species produces nectar. On the other hand, some produce very little pollen, and pollen is the protein source that bees feed their offspring. To fuel the activities of pollinators, many species of flowers are needed.

The Asteraceae family, which includes asters, daisies and sunflowers, is a powerhouse when it comes to supporting the most variety of specialist bees. They generally bloom in the summer and fall months, are big pollen producers and have nectar that is easily reachable. Goldenrods (Solidago) are also fantastic fall-blooming plants for pollinators. Having multiple species of both asters and goldenrods in your garden will serve numerous species of bees.

Dogwoods, willows, blueberries and redbuds are all great plant choices to support pollinators in fall. Redbuds support specialists and leaf-cutter bees love redbud leaves. 

Spring-blooming woodland plants followed by spring-flowering shrubs are important for pollinators in the Eastern United States. Woody plants and trees, such as buckeye and tulip poplar, do a lot of the pollen and nectar offering in spring, Heather says. 

Another consideration is the type of environment. A prairie needs different plants than a woodland or wetland edge. Another way to say this is to put the right plant in the right place. Be conscious of your regional ecosystem plant communities and where they thrive.

Floral repetition is also important. It’s not enough to have one plant of each species in your garden. Groupings of multiple pollen-rich plants will attract more pollinators than a single plant, and it’s more attractive too.  


Sphex pensylvanicus wasp

Sphex pensylvanicus, the great black wasp, is a North American species of digger wasp. The females paralyze prey to feed to their larvae in underground nests.
(Photo Credit: Heather Holm)


I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Heather Holm on how to attract pollinators of native plants. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

What do you do in your garden to attract pollinators? Let us know in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 023: Attracting and Protecting Pollinators with Eric Mader

Episode 049: When Good Bugs Eat Bad Bugs: The Business of Beneficial Insects

Episode 067: Predatory Beneficial Insects: Feared Foes of Garden Pests, Pt. 1

Episode 068: Top Predatory Beneficial Insects and How to Attract Them, Pt. 2

Episode 072: Creating an Eco-friendly Garden & Landscape: 7 Key Tenets

Episode 102: The Pollinating Power of Solitary Bees, and How to Attract These Gentle Insects To Your Backyard Garden

Episode 103: How to Create a Backyard Meadow: Simple Steps for Success No Matter the Space

Episode 142: Why Our Plant Choices Matter: Nature’s Best Hope, with Doug Tallamy

Episode 234: Converting Lawn into Meadow

Episode 237: Ecological Gardening: Creating Beauty & Biodiversity

Episode 239: Pollinators of Native Plants: How to Attract, Observe and Identify These Essential Insects 

Episode 244: Wasps: Getting to Know These Underappreciated Insects, with Heather Holm

Episode 261: All About Native Bees, with Heather Holm

Episode 316: Celebrate Pollinator Week with Pollinator Partnership

Episode 331: The Ecological Garden Blueprint: 10 Essential Steps That Matter Most 

Episode 354: How Pesticide Regulations Fail Pollinators, with the Xerces Society

joegardener free resource: Attract Common Butterflies with Host Plants

joegardenerTV YouTube: How to Create a Wildlife-Friendly Habitat in Your Garden or Landscape

joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier. 

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.

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Growing a Greener World®

Pollinator Photos by Heather Holm

Heather Holm on Facebook

Heather Holm on Instagram – @beesnativeplants

Heather Holm on Twitter – @beesnativeplants

Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide” by Heather Holm 

Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants” by Heather Holm 

Wasps: Their Biology, Diversity, and Role as Beneficial Insects and Pollinators of Native Plants” by Heather Holm 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service: Insects & Pollinators

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Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast was based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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