Creature Feature: Planting for Pollinators

A bee collects nectar from a blue borage flower. Photo: TJ Gehling, CC.
A bee collects nectar from a blue borage flower. Photo: TJ Gehling, CC.

Spring is springing, and it’s time to start doing yardwork and planting our gardens for the coming year. It’s important to consider whether the plants you choose are helping to support the local native wildlife as well. Pollinators are crucial not just to a variety of flowering plants, but also to our human food supply.

When we think of pollinators, our beloved honeybees often come to mind. While honeybees are one of the most important pollinators for our food supply, there are a number of other native beneficial insects as well. In California, we have thousands of different species of native bees, hover flies, butterflies, and moths. Hummingbirds are also important pollinators. With such a variety of pollinators its good to keep in mind their different needs in order to encourage all different kinds into our backyards.

A hummingbird feeding at a red salvia flower. Photo: TJ Gehling, CC.
A hummingbird feeding at a red salvia flower. Photo: TJ Gehling, CC.

• Different needs. Birds, bees and butterflies all enjoy nectar, which is why they are attracted to our flowering gardens, but each have different needs and preferences in flower shape due to their particular adaptations. Hummingbirds prefer long tubular flowers. Plants like fuchsias, penstemon, and salvias are perfect for them. Butterflies like tubular plants as well, but prefer clustering flowers with tubular centers which are easy to land on, like lilacs and milkweed, as well as flat headed flowers like echinacea and black-eyed-Susan’s.

Bees, having much shorter tongues, prefer short-lipped flowers with single sets of petals, like peas and clover. They like good landing pads, open bowl shaped flowers, flower clusters, and flat-headed flowers. Bees collect both pollen and nectar so they visit a wider variety of flowers than other pollinators. Many small solitary bees and hoverflies enjoy the open spread of umbel shaped flowers, such as dill and fennel.

• Color is also a factor in determining which pollinators will be attracted. We all know that a hummingbird’s favorite color is red, but what about bees? Have you ever seen a bee in a red flower? Probably, but bees can’t see the red color spectrum. To attract bees, purple and blue flowers are most attractive, due to the bees’ ultraviolet spectrum vision.

Butterflies and moths view a much wider range of color, so shape is typically more important than color. Creating a diverse garden with a variety of color, species, and flower shapes will create shelter and food for a more diverse group of pollinators.

• No matter how large or small your space, there is always room for a few pollinator-friendly plants. If you only have a small patio or garden space, just tuck in a few extra flowering plants. For larger spaces, planting in mass is best, as that will draw in more pollinators. Honeybees in particular are efficiency-driven, feasting where there is an abundance of food, rather than flying around from one lot to the next.

• Go Native. It’s best to choose as many native plants as possible. Natives are adapted to thrive with our climate, soils, and insects and will therefore require the least amount of effort with the most benefit. Hybrids, which are bred specifically for their larger showy presence, are not always beneficial to pollinators. A mixture of natives and non-natives can create a nice visual balance and still creates a diverse ecosystem.

• It is always best practice to stay away from insecticides as pesticide residue often ends up in the nectar and pollen of a plant. Even the most eco-friendly substances can be harmful if used incorrectly, so be careful.

• Another factor to consider is bloom time. It’s beneficial to both you and pollinators to have plants blooming throughout the growing season, so there is continuous food and flowers to enjoy. Plan ahead and include types that bloom in each season.


There are many varieties of flowers that benefit our local pollinators. Below is a short list of plants you might consider adding to your space.

Early Spring

Baby blue eyes/five spot­­—low growing, native, attracts native bees. Tolerates shade and moisture. Annual.

different varieties bloom at different times, adaptive to many soil types. Attracts all pollinators, full sun, drought tolerant once established. Perennial.


Clarkia and California poppies—seed out late winter/early spring in well draining soil. Full sun, drought tolerant, native. Annual/Perennial.

Beardtongue (penstemon) and salvias (sage)—
Large variety of colors and species available. Attracts all pollinators. Full sun for best bloom, drought tolerant once established, prune back each fall. Perennials

thyme, oregano, chives, basil, mint, dill, fennel, sage, borage and rosemary- these flowering herbs are fantastic for bees. A great place to start if you want to enjoy the flavors of your garden while you benefit the bees. Annual/Perennial.

Late season

Sunflowers/rudbeckia/coneflowers/echinacea/black eyed Susan’s—There are many names and varieties. All plants in this family are fantastic for bees and butterflies. Easy to care for, and a powerhouse of flowers. Full sun, drought tolerant. Perennial.

Lavender and sedums—
Once in bloom these flowers will be buzzing. Full sun, drought tolerant, well drained soil or rock garden. Lavender trim back in fall, sedums die back to the ground each year. Perennial.

If you can only plant one plant, borage (bee-bush) is a great one for pollinators and a fantastic plant for many reasons. It can bloom year round in our mild climate. Grow from seed in humus soil rich in organic matter. Plant among squash, cucumbers and tomatoes to attract pollinators to your garden.

May your garden buzz with pollinators!