Plant a pollinator-friendly garden

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMarch 14, 2014 

When you swat at a bee in the garden, remember that it's not just a stinger but a pollinator - an insect, bird or mammal that enables a plant to set seed.

With 75 percent of all flowering plants requiring pollinators - a third of which are human food sources - it is imperative that we address the threats they face: habitat degradation and loss, the spread of pests and diseases, extensive pesticide use and climate change.

The honeybee is probably the most familiar pollinator, and its plight is well documented. According to a survey by Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club, 312 honeybee colonies were being managed in the Valley in fall 2012. By spring of 2013, that number was down by half. Club President Chad Dickinson, attributed much of this loss to an unusually cold winter and mismanagement by beekeepers. These issues combined with numerous others resulted in a tough year for local honeybees.

And it isn't just honeybees, not native to the Western Hemisphere, that are in danger. North America is home to thousands of pollinating insects, including numerous species of bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, flies and beetles - all with varying habitat and forage needs. Many of these native insects, including the blue orchard bee and the Eastern bumblebee, are just as important for agricultural pollination as the non-native honeybee.

The good news is that all pollinators (native or nonnative) can benefit from similar conservation strategies. Creating pollinator-friendly habitats that are free from pesticides and include diverse food sources and nesting sites will help ensure the health and survival of these beneficial organisms.

Consider dedicating a portion of your yard to pollinator habitat. Here's how to get started:


Full sun helps keep pollinators active.


Select at least three plants that flower in each of the three blooming periods (spring, summer and fall).

Early-spring bloomers and fall bloomers are especially important.


On each foraging trip, bees visit flowers of a single species, so planting in small clumps will help them out.


Plants in your garden should have varying heights and growth habits. Not only should they bloom at different times, but they should also have flowers of various colors, shapes and sizes. This will help attract a wide range of pollinators.


A warm-season bunch grass, such as little bluestem, will provide habitat for bumblebees. A small section of bare ground is important for ground nesting bees. Bundles of hollow stems, such as bamboo or elderberry, provide nesting sites for mason bees.


Pollinators need water, too. Include a birdbath or something with a ledge for pollinators to perch and drink.


Native plants are typically the best for native pollinators, especially those that require specific plants for food and habitat. When selecting nonnative plants, choose old varieties when possible, since some modern varieties and hybrids can be poor sources of nectar. Casey O'Leary of Earthly Delights Farm, an urban farm and seed company in Boise, suggests purple and blue flowers, such as larkspur, borage and bee's friend, for bumblebees, and small white flowers, such as yarrow and plants in the carrot family, for solitary bees. She has also found that native buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.) are excellent at attracting pollinators. On her farm, O'Leary allows vegetable crops not typically grown for their seed or fruit (such as lettuce, arugula and radishes) to flower, attracting beneficial insects and providing additional nectar sources for foraging pollinators.

To find more ideas for designing and planting your pollinator garden, visit the Pollinator Pathway in the Children's Adventure Garden at Idaho Botanical Garden (visitor details at, and ask the horticulture staff for more specific plant recommendations. For more information on inviting native pollinators into your yard, visit

Daniel Murphy is a horticulture technician at the Idaho Botanical Garden.

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