Planting for pollinators: It's the bee's knees

University Park, Pa. — Whether you are a seasoned gardener or a novice green thumb, you can join the fight to save the honeybees by planting your own pollinator-friendly garden this spring, according to a horticulture specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"You can do your part on an acre or in a window box," said Ginger Pryor, state coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension's Master Gardener program. "Pollinator-friendly practices can be applied in any size gardening space."
Pryor offers the following advice on beginning your own pollinator-friendly garden:
• Choose species of plants that will benefit honeybees and other pollinators. "Avoid hybrid strains with 'doubled' flowers," she said. "They often lack pollen, fragrance and nectar as a result of the hybridization."
• Use varieties native to Pennsylvania. Local pollinators have evolved with native plant species and are four times more likely to be attracted to native plants, noted Pryor. "Providing plant species in a garden that bloom from early spring into late fall provides pollinators with a constant food supply," she said. "Choose plants that offer a variety of flower shapes and colors to attract different types of pollinators."
• Choose the right plants for your site. A pollinator-friendly garden will depend on shade, soil quality and moisture, but typically most pollinator plants will need a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day. For Pennsylvania, Pryor suggests sunflowers, baby blue eyes, eastern purple coneflower, cardinal flower, giant blue lobelia, clustered mountain mint, butterfly milkweed, meadow zizia, smooth blue aster and scarlet beebalm. "Avoid planting invasive species, and remove any that you find," she said. "These species compete with pollinator plants."
• Plan your space. Clustering plants of the same species together makes it easier for pollinators to locate them. "Also leave areas of bare ground in a sunny spot — roughly 3 square feet — for ground-nesting bees," Pryor said. "Be sure to include water sources such as shallow birdbaths, mud puddles or even just a small saucer with sand and rocks to supply pollinators with the necessary water and minerals."
• Maintain the garden with pollinators in mind. Pryor recommends eliminating all pesticides, if possible. "If elimination is not an option, read labels carefully and select the least toxic materials, and apply after dusk when most pollinators are no longer active," she said.
• Attract butterflies. If you would like your garden to attract colorful butterflies, select host plants for the caterpillar larvae. But Pryor reminds gardeners that some of these host plants are less decorative and will have obvious aesthetic damage when caterpillars are eating the leaves, so they should place them accordingly.
• Wait out the winter before doing any garden cleanup. Unless diseased, leave dried plant stalks in the garden through the winter because these materials are home to hibernating insects. "Many of the beneficial bugs your garden attracted while in bloom will overwinter in old plant matter," Pryor said. "Some plants, such as native ornamental grasses, also can provide protection for birds and small mammals and offer alternative food sources when winter sets in."
The Penn State Master Gardener Pollinator Friendly Gardening Program, which includes educational workshops and demonstration gardens around the state, was developed with financial support from ice cream company Haagen-Dazs. The funding also will help in Penn State's efforts to study Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated honeybee colonies nationwide, and to raise public awareness of a dire decline in pollinator populations.
"Planting for pollinators is an important action homeowners can take to help save our bees and our food supply," said Pryor. "Honeybees, just one of many pollinator species, are responsible for pollinating one-third of everything we eat, including apples, strawberries, almonds and cherries. So once you plant your pollinator garden, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor."
For more information about pollinator-friendly gardening and the Master Gardener program, contact your county Penn State Cooperative Extension office (find your local office online at

Credit: Annemarie Mountz / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 18, 2010