University of Vermont
Spring/Summer News Article
Department of Plant and Soil Science
CREATING A POLLINATOR-FRIENDLY LANDSCAPE
Annie White, Research Assistant and Landscape Consultant
University of Vermont
A landscape rich with a diversity of flowering plants is both
beautiful and helps support the thousands of species of bees,
butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinating insects we have in
the U.S. However, planning your pollinator-friendly landscape does
not end with your plant list. The layout of your gardens, layout of
your plants, and your maintenance practices all affect pollinators.
Here is a set of considerations for choosing the best types of
plants for pollinators, plus how to use them to create the best
pollinator sanctuary possible.
Research suggests that most pollinators prefer to forage—but not
necessarily exclusively—on the nectar and pollen from native plants.
There are plenty of non-native species that are also great for
pollinators, so it is not necessary to avoid them altogether, but
incorporating more native plants into your landscape will make the
pollinators, as well as the birds and other wildlife, happiest. A
typical suburban landscape contains only 20-30 percent native plant
species. Try reversing that trend in your own landscape by using
70-80 percent native species.
A pollinator-friendly landscape has flowers in bloom throughout the
entire growing season, providing a consistent supply of nectar and
pollen. When choosing plants, it is especially important to have
plants that bloom early in the spring, such as a serviceberry tree (Amelanchier
spp.) or wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and
late in the fall, such as Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.). In
addition to perennial flowers, many flowering trees and shrubs,
annuals, and spring bulbs also are beneficial to pollinators.
The size, shape, and color of flowering plants all influence what
types of pollinating insects will visit them, so planting a
diversity of flowers is the best way to attract a diversity of
pollinators. For example, bees are more attracted to purple, yellow,
and white flowers and less attracted to red flowers. However, red
flowers, such as scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) and
cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), are magnets for
butterflies and hummingbirds.
Many of our small native bees prefer to forage on small flowers such
as yarrow (Achillea spp.) or composite flowers comprised of
many tiny florets, like purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).
Bumblebees are big and strong, allowing them to pry their way inside
larger flowers such as wild indigo (Baptisia spp.)
that are difficult for other bees to access. Planting a variety of
flower shapes and sizes will ensure all pollinators are well fed.
Some moths and butterflies also use plants in our gardens as host
plants to rear their young. The monarch butterfly will feed on the
nectar of many flowers but will only lay eggs on the leaves of
milkweed (Asclepias spp.). Include host plants such as marsh
milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias
tuberosa), and wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) in your
gardens to help support rare butterflies.
When shopping for native plants at nurseries and garden centers, you
will find that there are numerous cultivars available for native
plants. For example if you are looking for purple coneflower, you
may find dozens of cultivars such as ‘PowWow Wild Berry’ and ‘White
Swan.’ Research has shown that some cultivars are not as attractive
to pollinators as their wild ancestors, so choose cultivars
carefully. As a general rule of thumb it is best to avoid hybrid
cultivars, double-flowered cultivars, and cultivars that have a
dramatic change in color or flower shape.
Ask your nursery if the plants you are buying have been treated with
a systemic insecticide, such as neonicotinoids, within the last
year. Scientists are currently studying and debating how dangerous
these common insecticides are for bees, especially honeybees. But
here is what we already know: systemic insecticides are absorbed
into the plant’s tissues and can be transported to the nectar and
pollen. High concentrations can be fatal to bees, butterflies, and
other insect pollinators, and lower concentrations may affect their
health and well-being. If your gardening efforts are motivated by a
desire to support pollinator populations, it is best to avoid buying
plants that have been treated with systemic insecticides and, of
course, avoid applying insecticides in your landscape as well.
Many bee pollinators prefer to forage on the nectar and pollen from
a single plant species during their foraging outings. Bee biologists
call this “flower constancy.” Therefore, grouping plants in
single-species masses of five to seven plants is more advantageous
for the bees than having just one or two plants, or dispersing them
throughout the landscape.
Having pollinator-friendly flowering plants is just one aspect to
creating a permanent habitat in your yard. Pollinators also need
homes to raise their families. Honeybees are the only species that
lives in human-constructed hives. Of the 4,000 species of native
bees that we have here in the U.S., about 70 percent nest in burrows
in the ground, and the rest build their homes in hollowed twigs or
Preserving bare areas of well-drained soil in sunny locations, and
minimizing the use of mulch will help ground-nesting bees find
permanent homes in your gardens. Brush piles and dead or dying trees
and shrubs also make great homes for pollinators but, if you like
your landscape neat and tidy, you can make (or purchase)
pollinator-nesting boxes. A water source, such as a birdbath with a
shallow area, is also an appreciated addition to any
You have probably noticed that you see more bees and butterflies in
your garden on warm, sunny, and calm days. You can create
microclimates within your landscape that will keep the bees buzzing
even on not-so-perfect days. A garden space that is rich with a
diversity of flowering plants and also has good southeastern
exposure for morning and mid-day sun, and that is protected from
prevailing winds, is the perfect sanctuary for pollinators.
Look online for more landscape tips and plant choices for helping
Return to Perry's Perennial