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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Plant garden to attract pollinators

The perennial plant Helenium, commonly known as Sneezeweed, is very popular with bees. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)
The perennial plant Helenium, commonly known as Sneezeweed, is very popular with bees. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

As news of pollinator decline becomes more frequent, it’s clear that attracting pollinators to our gardens is more important now than ever before.

Pollinators help increase the production in our vegetable gardens, berry patches and orchards. In addition, flower pollination helps plants produce seeds. If there are no seeds, there will not be plants. That’s a pretty scary thought. And in turn, pollinators need both pollen and nectar in order to reproduce, so flowers and pollinators are completely reliant upon each other.

There are many reasons for pollinator decline including habitat loss from property development as well as climate change, which has affected when plants bloom. Another cause is the use of pesticides. Research has shown that sprays containing neonicotinoids can affect a honeybee’s ability to fly, find pollen and make its way back to the hive.

It’s easy to think of honeybees as the only pollinators in our gardens, but it goes beyond that. There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America. Most are solitary but some form small colonies. Examples of solitary bees include bumblebees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees. Other types of pollinators are butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, wasps, beetles and flower flies. Bats, birds and humans help out, too.

The best way to attract pollinators to your garden is to plant a diverse landscape. This includes layers of plants of differing heights such as annuals, perennials, shrubs, small understory trees and tall trees. These layers accommodate the different life cycle stages of each pollinator.

There are all sorts of wonderful plants that will attract bees. Bulbs such as allium, crocus and grape hyacinth are ideal, as are annual flowers like sweet alyssum, calendula, cosmos, sunflower and zinnia.

Last summer, I grew several different cultivars of sunflowers and was astounded by how many types of solitary bees were drawn to them. You can bet sunflowers will play an important role in this year’s garden.

Bees are also attracted to flowering herb plants and perennials such as goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower and sedum. Examples of flowering native shrubs include ninebark, ocean spray, snowberry, serviceberry and Oregon grape.

To attract butterflies, you’ll want to plant both host plants for their larvae and nectar plants for the adults. Host plants include members of the carrot family – dill, fennel and parsley, for example – and aster, milkweed and hollyhock. Annuals and perennials that supply nectar include cosmos, lantana, bee balm, phlox and yarrow. Honeysuckle and trumpet vines make attractive additions to the garden, and shrubs such as bluebeard, lilac, potentilla and spirea will draw in the butterflies.

Primarily nocturnal, moths are drawn to pale flowers since they can spot them in the moonlight. They also prefer fragrant blossoms.

Hummingbirds are attracted to red, orange and white flowers. Because bees can’t see the color red, butterflies and these amazing birds make sure red flowers are pollinated. Hummingbirds are particularly attracted to tubular flowers including nasturtium, salvia, bee balm, foxglove, lupine and penstemon.

While we gardeners are often fearful of wasps, they do play a valuable role in pollinating the flowers around us as well as controlling some insects. Both wasps and beetles are attracted to aster, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, gooseneck loosestrife and yarrow.

The most important thing is to avoid the use of pesticides. Instead, let the beneficial insects in your garden do the work for you or hand-pick damaging insects. If you must use a spray, choose an organic one and remember these rules: spray late in the day, when it’s calm and when flowers aren’t blooming.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of Northwest Gardener’s Handbook. Contact her at and follow her on Facebook at

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