Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden

You know the saying “A Watched Pot Never Boils”? That’s how I’ve been feeling lately.

I keep going over my dreams again and again in my head. Trying to push a little harder, make my life go a little faster, get to the end result a little sooner. But really, what will come, will come when it is time. I can choose to work my butt off for my goals, but also live in the moment and enjoy what I am surrounded with currently.

I get this way with not only my dreams, but my garden. “When are you going to bloom?” “When will you be producing fruit?” “How long until you pop up out of the soil, little seed?”

It’s a fun game we play…the garden and I. It’s constantly surprising me, challenging me, bestowing patience on me (or attempting to anyways).

This year has been a good year so far. Almost every plant has played its part well. Produced, flowered, grown.
But what I can’t help noticing is the total lack of bees in my garden.

Regardless of the time of day, I haven’t seen a single bee all year. This breaks my heart. But, on a happy note, I have seen other pollinators in my garden.
I’m a bee loving freak…and could go on and on about the destruction of the bee colonies, and that you shouldn’t spray pesticides, etc.
Some of the other pollinators have gotten lost among all the “Bee Hype” (WHICH IS STILL REALLY IMPORTANT!)

Let’s first go over the some of the different types of pollinators, besides bees.


It’s not just about the types of plants you grow when attempting to attract pollinators to your gardens and yards.
You need to think about:
-Food sources
-Shelter/Nesting Sights
-Water sources
-Reducing pesticide use

1) Food Sources
This is the biggie. If you have all of the other pollinator needs but you don’t have a food source, pollinators won’t come.
Food sources vary, depending on the type of pollinator you’re trying to attract.
It’s best to start off with native plants. Native plants co-evolved with native pollinators, making them the best source of food.
Another important factor in regards to food sources, is a continuous blooming cycle. You’ll want multiple different blooming times from your plants. This will give a steady and year round food source to your pollinators, also making your garden more attractive as well as keeping the pollinators around.

Hummingbirds: Food sources include anything with a trumpet like neck as a flower.
Hummingbirds have a poor sense of smell and rely heavily on sight to indicate if a flower will be a good food source. This is where the “hummingbirds are attracted to red feeders and flowers” comes in. Yes, they are attracted to red but they’re also drawn to any bright color as well, not just specifically red. An important fact to remember about hummingbirds: if you do not have adequate plants to attract them, setting up a hummingbird feeder using 3 parts water and 1 part sugar will work, but this does not address pollination as they will be receiving their nectar from another source. This may help attract them to your garden though.
CAUTION: Red dyed sugar water is completely unnecessary to attract hummingbirds. Multiple studies have found inconclusive data on whether red dye is safe for hummingbirds or not. To be on the safe side, just don’t use it at all. (Possible side effects are the weakening of egg shells)

Examples of plants:
~Red Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
~Trumpet Vine (Campsis radicans)
~Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
~Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
~Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
~Catnip (Nepeta x faassenii)
~Delphinium (Delphinium exaltatum)
~Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
~Hosta (Hosta spec.)
~Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
~Lilies (Lilium spec.)
~Monarda/Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
~Morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea)
~Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)
~Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

Butterflies: Food sources for butterflies include many red, yellow, orange, pink and purple flowers that are flat-topped or clustered and have short flower tubes. Not only do you need to have food sources for the butterflies, but also their larva. Butterflies will be more attracted to an area if there is ample food for their young.

Examples of plants for caterpillars (Host Plants):
~Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)- Bermuda grass, crabgrass, St. Augustine grass, and other grasses
~Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius)- Rice cutgrass and bluegrass
~Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)- Chufa flatsedge and sun sedge
~Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)- Any shrubs of the genus Asimina (pawpaw)
~Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)- Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot, parsley, celery and dill
~Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)- Wild cherry, Magonlia, basswood, tulip tree, birch trees, ash trees, cottonwood trees, and willow trees
~Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)- Spicebush, sassafras trees, prickly ash, tulip tree, sweetbay magnolia, camphor, and redbay
~Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)- Anything in the Brassicaceae family
~Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)- Plants in the Fabaceae family including alfalfa, white clover, and peas
~Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius)- Carnivorous caterpillars, they eat woolly aphids and sometimes scale insects or treehoppers; these insects suck sap from alders, witch hazel, ash, beech, hawthorn, and wild currant
~Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus)- Herbs of the Polygonaceae family including curly dock
~Eastern Tailed-Blue (Cupido comyntas)- Yellow sweet clover, alfalfa, various species of vetch, clover, wild pea, and bush clover
~Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)- Dogwood, New Jersey tea, meadowsweet, and Collinsia
~Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta)- Racemose dogwood and New Jersey Tea
~Monarch (Danaus plexippus)- Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
~Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)- Maypops, may apple, violets, purslane, stonecrop, and moonseed
~Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)- Various violet species (Viola)
~Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia)- Birds foot violet
~Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis)- Various hackberries and sugarberry
~Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton)- Trees of the elm family
~Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis)- Black-eyed susan, sunflowers, and wingstem
~Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)- Aster pilosus, Aster texanus, and Aster laevis
~Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)- Snapdragons, toadflax, plantains, ruellia
~Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)- American elm, red elm, hackberry, Japanese hop, nettles, and false nettle
~Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)- American elm, hops, nettle, false nettle, and wood nettle
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)- Stinging nettl, tall wild nettle, wood nettle, false nettle, pellitory, mamaki, and hops
~Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)- More than 100 host plants have been noted. Favorites include thistles, hollyhock and mallow, and legumes

Examples of plants for butterflies (Nectar Plants/Food):
~Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus)- Sweet pepperbush, swamp milkweed, asters, sneezeweed, knapweed, ironweed, and thistles
~Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius)- Red clover, purple vetch, thistles, selfheal, New York ironweed, blue vervain, common milkweed, swamp milkweed, dogbane, and New Jersey tea
~Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)- Common milkweed, purple vetch, selfheal, peppermint, dogbane, ~New Jersey tea, and viper’s bugloss
~Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus)- Blueberry, blackberry, lilac, redbud, viper’s bugloss, verbena, dogbane, and common milkweed
~Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)- Red clover, milkweed, and thistles
~Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)- Wild cherry, lilac, milkweed, and Joe-Pye Weed
~Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)- Japanese honeysuckle, jewelweed, thistles, milkweed, azalea, dogbane, lantana, mimosa, and sweet pepperbush
~Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)- Mustards, dandelion, red clover, asters, and mints
~Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)- Majority of nectar producing plants
~Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius)- Aphid honeydew; they do not sip flower nectar.
~Bronze Copper (Lycaena hyllus)- Blackberry and red clover
~Eastern Tailed-Blue (Cupido comyntas)- White sweet clover, shepherd’s needle, wild strawberry, winter cress, cinquefoils, asters
~Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)- Dogbane, privet, New Jersey tea, blackberry, common milkweed
~Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta)- Majority of nectar producing plants
~Monarch (Danaus plexippus)- Nectar from all milkweeds. In the spring time, Monarchs visit a variety of flowers including dogbane, lilac, red clover, lantana, and thistles. In the fall adults visit goldenrods, blazing stars, ironweed, and tickseed sunflower.
~Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)- Butterflyweed, common milkweed, dogbane, peppermint, red clover, swamp milkweed, and tickseed sunflower
~Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)- Milkweeds, thistles, ironweed, dogbane, mountain laurel, verbena, vetch, bergamot, red clover, joe-pye weed, and purple coneflower
~Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia)- Milkweeds, thistles, red clover, and mountain mint
~Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis)- Sap, rotting fruit, dung, carrion
~Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton)- Tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, carrion
~Silvery Checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis)- Red clover, common milkweed, and dogbane
~Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)- Dogbane, swamp milkweed, shepherd’s needle, asters, and winter cress
~Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)- Aster, chickory, gumweed, knapweed, tickseed sunflower, dogbane, and peppermint
~Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis)- Rotting fruit, tree sap, dung, carrion
~Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)- Rotting fruit and tree sap
~Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)- Flowing sap from trees, fermenting fruit, and bird droppings
~Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)- Thistles, aster, cosmos, blazing star, ironweed, joe-pye weed, red clover, buttonbush, privet, and milkweeds

Moths: Food sources are similar to butterflies for moth caterpillars. Moths are attracted to your garden when there are food sources available for their young, many adult moths do not feed at all, their sole purpose being to lay their eggs and die. But they are great pollinators due to their incredibly fuzzy legs which pick up pollen from any flower they land on.

Examples of plants for moth caterpillars (Host Plants):
~Nevada buckmoth (Hemileuca nevadensis)- Willow and cottonwood trees
~Luna moth (Actias luna)- White birch, persimmon, sweet gum, hickory, walnut, and sumac trees
~Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus)- Oak, willow, maple, and birch trees
~Cecropia silkmoth (Hyalophora cecropia)- Box elder, sugar maple, wild cherries, plum, apples, alder, birch, dogwood, and willow trees
~Royal Walnut Moth (Citheronia regalis)- Hickory, pecan, butternut, black walnut, sweet gum, persimmon, and sumac trees, and cultivated cotton
~Rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)- Red maple, sugar maple, silver maple, and turkey oak trees
~Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis)- Pine, oak, box elder, maple, sweet gum, sassafras, Norway spruce trees
~Bisected honey locust moth (Sphingicampa bisecta)- Honey locust and Kentucky coffee tree
~Pink-spotted hawkmoth (Agrius cingulata)- Sweet potato and jimsonweed
~Walnut sphinx (Amorpha juglandis)- Walnut, butternut, hickory, alder, beech, hazelnut, and hop-hornbeam trees
~Blinded sphinx (Paonias excaecata)- Basswood, willow, birch, hawthorn, poplar, oaks, ocean spray, and cherry trees
~Small-eyed sphinx (Paonias myops)-Western chokecherry, black cherry, sour cherry, service berry, and basswood
~Great ash sphinx (Sphinx chersis)- Lilac, quaking aspen, ash, and privet
~Pandorus sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus)- Grape, ampelopsis, and Virginia creeper
~Snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis)- Snowberry, honeysuckle, dogbane, and dwarf bush honeysuckle
~Tersa Sphinx (Xylophanes tersa)- Smooth buttonplant, starclusters, Borreria, and Catalpa

Examples of plants for moths (Nectar Plants/Food):
~Nevada buckmoth (Hemileuca nevadensis)- Adults do not feed
~Luna moth (Actias luna)- Adults do not feed
~Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus)- Adults do not feed
~Cecropia silkmoth (Hyalophora cecropia)- Adults do not feed
~Royal Walnut Moth (Citheronia regalis)- Adults do not feed
~Rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)- Adults do not feed
~Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis)- Adults do not feed
~Bisected honey locust moth (Sphingicampa bisecta)- Adults do not feed
~Pink-spotted hawkmoth (Agrius cingulata)- Moonflower, morning glory, and petunias
~Walnut sphinx (Amorpha juglandis)- Adults do not feed
~Blinded sphinx (Paonias excaecata)- Adults do not feed
~Small-eyed sphinx (Paonias myops)- Adults do not feed
~Great ash sphinx (Sphinx chersis)- Japanese honeysuckle, bouncing bet, dogbane, and evening primrose
~Pandorus sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus)- Petunia, bouncing bet, and white campion
~Snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis)- Lantana, dwarf bush honeysuckle, snowberry, orange hawkweed, thistles, lilac, and Canada violet
~Tersa Sphinx (Xylophanes tersa)- Honeysuckle

Beetles: Food sources for beetles vary dramatically depending on the beetle. Usually attracting beetles isn’t a problem as their food sources are so broad. Some will eat parts off of plants which can be either the leaves, seeds, fruit, stems, or wood. Many are carnivorous or omnivores and eat other bugs. Some eat fungus, and there are a bunch of species that eat dung. Because there are over 50+ varieties of beetles in Illinois alone, I won’t cover what each specifically needs. If you would like more information on them visit: Insect Identification.

Flies: Usually someone isn’t going to want to attract flies as they can be a great nuisance and multiply rapidly. Flies will eat anything. They don’t have teeth so they vomit their acidic stomach contents on to solid food sources. The juices break down the food into a liquid and the flies suck it up. Disgusting, I know. Regardless of their interesting and sometimes aggravating habits, flies are beneficial to the plant world. Due to their rapid ability to reproduce and abundance in almost every environment, flies are consistent pollinators. 30 out of a 115 cultivated crops were pollinated by flies. We focus heavily on bees in the world of pollination but where bees cannot go or have ceased to go, flies are still there pollinating away and are considered the 2nd most important pollinator after the bee. Unlike the bee, flies have low energy requirements, do not require a hive or nest, and can stay active at lower temperatures.
A great and very detailed article on Flies as Pollinators can be found here if
you’re interested in learning more! (Read it! It’s fascinating!)

2) Shelter/Nesting Sites:
Shelter and/or nesting sites for pollinators is a pretty easy thing to come by. There are “bug houses” on the market that you can buy…which usually end up becoming the home for some pretty fun wasp and spider nests. Most creatures in the animal kingdom are equipped to deal with unfavorable weather conditions and find the most suitable spots to lay their eggs. They bury themselves, cling to the undersides of leaves, crawl deep inside brush. Most do not require specific homes, but here are some examples if you want to create a specific habitat for a certain group of pollinators.

Hummingbirds: Thick trees and shrub are ideal for the hummingbird. They do not nest in a typical “bird house”, but in a hummingbird house which isn’t really a house at all. The best shelter for hummingbirds is providing adequate plants and trees for nesting and cover.

Butterflies: The feet of the butterfly would surprise you. They are able to cling to grasses, the undersides of leaves, hide in cracks, and tuck themselves away from the most brutal of storms. Caterpillars are known to do the same things, usually crawling underneath its host plants leaves, or inching closer to the base of the plant to be more protected. Ornamental grasses are an ideal place for butterflies to seek out shelter. As with hummingbirds, providing a variety of plants in your garden will help provide natural shelter for butterflies. Providing adequate nesting sights for butterflies goes hand in hand with planting “Host Plants” for a specific types caterpillars needs. See above for the list of plants that the different types of caterpillars host on.

Moths: Like butterflies and hummingbirds, moths tend to seek out shelter on their own when the right types of plants are available in your garden. Nesting sights are also similar the that of butterflies. See above list for detailed moth varieties and which caterpillars prefer which host plants.

Beetles: Have you seen those really cool bug houses with sticks and hollowed out logs and leaves? These types of structures are ideal for a wide range of beetles to seek out shelter and nest in. Keeping a stick pile or log pile also provides shelter and ample procreation sights to not only beetles but a whole slew of other insects. (We’ve all been shocked when we go to clean THAT pile up) Some beetles live in the ground, and you can help provide them shelter and nesting sites about as much as you can an earthworm. Beetles are also an extensively diverse group, as I stated above. More likely than not, if a storm or cold front is coming, their going to go find shelter.

Flies: Just don’t worry about them. Plenty more will pop up over night.

3) Water Source:
A very important part in the pollination attracting process is having an adequate and steady water supply for pollinators. As it does for humans, water fuels almost every living thing. Without it pollinators could not survive. Adding a water source just adds to the attraction appeal for pollinators.

Hummingbirds: Although they usually get all the liquid they need from the nectar they drink, hummingbirds do want a water source to bathe in. This helps rid their feathers of sticky sugar water that they may have brushed up against and keeps their feathers in top condition for flight.
A bird bath will not suffice for a hummingbird (or most of the pollinators for that matter). Placing rocks into the bird bath may help entice hummingbirds or a very shallow tray filled with water. A mister that sprays on nearby plants is more ideal though. The hummingbirds can then brush up against the plants and clean themselves.

Butterflies: Just like hummingbirds, most butterflies receive the water they need from the nectar they drink. But butterflies need a place to “puddle”. “Puddling” provides minerals and nutrients that butterflies need. Use a very shallow container, like the tray from a pot and fill it with water. Place a little dirt and sand in the bottom and fill the rest with water. Make sure you do not use potting soil or soils that have been chemically treated. Butterflies are highly sensitive to synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. You’ll need to make sure your puddling area stays moist. This may mean you’ll have to fill it up everyday.

Moths: I could not find sufficient data on what or if moths need a water source. I did find that because most moths do not feed in the adult stage, they don’t need water either. Their main goal being to live until they can reproduce. If a moth does drink nectar, they obtain their water needs from the nectar itself.

Beetles: Depending on the type of beetle, most get their water from the plants they eat. If the beetle is carnivorous it will drink from dew drops or puddles. Usually having a water source for beetles is unnecessary.

Flies: Flies do not need a water source. They obtain all of their water needs from their diets.

4) Reducing/Eliminating Pesticide Use:
Unfortunately this is the last thing people tend to think about when it comes to attracting pollinators to their gardens. I really wish it wasn’t.
Pesticides do not distinguish between the good, the bad, or the ugly…they kill everything. Having worked at garden centers in the past it always killed me when people would come in wanting a pesticide but having no idea the identification of the bug they were trying to kill. ALWAYS ID BEFORE YOU SPRAY. And even then, try using IPM practices first. IPM stands for “Integrated Pest Management”. This program goes through steps to economically control pests, pesticides being the last and worst case scenario. (More on IPM practices in a subsequent blog post)

Hummingbirds are not to be forgotten about either with pesticide use. Although they are not classified scientifically as bugs, many studies and first hand experience have noted that hummingbirds are extremely susceptible to death by pesticides.

Not only do pesticides reduce your probability of attracting pollinators but so does the use of herbicides.

Have any helpful tips or hints on attracting pollinators?? Leave a comment below!

9 thoughts on “Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden

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