How to Garden for Pollinators and Beneficial Insects

How to help pollinators

One of the many benefits of gardening is the opportunity to provide resources for bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects.  Luckily, there are some simple steps every gardener can take that help these beneficial insects.

  • Make sure there are flowering plants during the spring, summer, and fall. 
  • Reduce disturbance in gardens to provide nesting and overwintering habitat.
  • Minimize or eliminate pesticides.

Gardening for pollinators benefits many insect species and is a fun way to add color to your garden throughout the growing season.  

Bumble bee on purple coneflower
Bumble bee collecting pollen from a purple coneflower.

Making flowers available

Many insects feed on both nectar and pollen.  Nectar is primarily sugars and is used by insects for energy, but it also contains important amino acids. Pollen is a source of protein, fatty acids, and other lipids. 

  • Bees feed on pollen and nectar as adults and collect it to feed their young. 
  • Butterfly and moth adults feed on nectar with special mouthparts able to siphon nectar from flowers. 
  • Natural enemies that help manage pest insects in our gardens (wasps, lady beetles, lacewings, and predatory mites) all rely on pollen and nectar as a food source. 

Any plant with flowers that produce nectar and pollen are a great addition to the garden.  It is important to select plants that bloom at different times of the year so a constant source of food is available all year.  Early spring and later into the fall are key times to ensure you have flowering plants.

If you have fruit trees, squash, or other fruits and vegetables that rely on insect pollination, other flowering plants in the garden will increase pollination because pollinators will already be present in your garden. 

In recent years, there has been some popular activities, such as No Mow May, where people promote not mowing in May to allow flowers to grow in lawns.  We do not recommend following this practice. In many lawns, the unmown grass outcompetes the few flowering plants in the yard, like clover or dandelion.  Planting annuals and perennials in your garden that will bloom in May is a much better way to more sustainably support pollinating and other beneficial insects

Perennials for Sun
What perennials bloom in early spring
Summer blooming perennials
How to Create a Pollinator Lawn

Reducing disturbance and providing nesting habitat

Many of our native bees are solitary nesters.  This means each female builds her own nest and collects pollen and nectar to feed her young.  Often, the female rolls the pollen and nectar into a ball, places it into a cell, and lays her egg on it.  The egg hatches into a larva that consumes the pollen ball.  These nests can be built in the soil, hollow plant stems, or holes and crevices in rocks. 

Parasitic wasp rests on orange flower petal.
Parasitic wasps require pollen and nectar collected from flowers for nutrients.

It can be difficult to know where these solitary nests are, but many will nest in the soil in vegetable gardens.   So, when possible, reduce soil disturbance by minimizing tillage in gardens. Many young bees overwinter underground in the nest, so minimizing fall and early spring tillage will help preserve them.  If possible just till the area you will be installing plants.

To protect bees and wasps nesting in hollow stems, it is best to not remove them from plants in the spring until temperatures have warmed.  If they must be trimmed, lay them out somewhere that any insects that are overwintering in them can still emerge. 

Many insects, including bees, butterflies, and predatory and parasitic insects, spend the winter in sheltered areas like mulch, leaf litter, and beneath stones and other items in the yard. If possible, limit disturbance of these areas until temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are artificial bee houses that can be made as a do-it-yourself project or purchased. These can be a fun addition to the garden.  All nesting tubes need to be removed and replaced annually to prevent the buildup of diseases.  Make sure all bees have emerged before removal.

Reducing the use of pesticides

When encouraging pollinators and other beneficial insects to visit and live in your yard, it is important to minimize the use of pesticides, especially insecticides.  Many insecticides kill all insects, and unfortunately, beneficial insects are not able to detect the presence of pesticides and avoid an area.

When possible, select organic options, such as insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils, that have limited residual activity as this limits any harm to beneficial insects.  When possible, use products that are specific to certain groups of insects, such as Btk, which only kills caterpillars. 

If insecticides need to be used on lawns and there are clover or creeping Charlie present that might attract beneficial insects, you can keep them mowed to prevent bloom and keep pollinators out of the area while insecticides are present. 

Enjoy the insects

Encouraging pollinators and other beneficial insects can add a new dimension of enjoyment to your gardening. It is fun to select plants that bloom at different times of the year and establish them in your gardens.  It is also really fun to observe the insects utilizing the flowers.  Especially in the fall, when nectar sources are limited, insects will cover the blooms on plants like sedum.  Although bees and wasps can sting, they are very unlikely to do so while foraging because they are not near their colony and needing to protect it.  They would only sting if grabbed or stepped on, so this is a great time to observe them and even try out your photography skills.

More Information

Gardening for Butterflies and Pollinators

Last reviewed:
April 2024