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How to Attract Butterflies and Bees: Native Plants Are Best

Pollinators need safe spaces to feed and find mates. You can help them by making your yard a friendly stop for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Stop Spraying Pesticides. The number one threat to pollinators—and the chemicals you should avoid over all others—is neonicotinoid (or neonic) pesticides. Not only are they most toxic to bees, butterflies, and other insects, but when applied, these poisons make their way throughout the the entire plant—including the pollen and nectar.

Shop Smart. A recent report revealed that 51 percent of plant samples purchased at top garden stores in the United States and Canada contained neonicotinoids. Buy only plants or seeds that aren’t pretreated with pesticides. Smaller nurseries that specialize in organic gardening will likely be your best bet.

Go Native. Local plants match the needs of pollinators in our area. Many of the modern hybrids you find at plant nurseries, on the other hand, may have pollen, nectar, and even scent bred out of them.

Plant milkweed. In 1997, more than 1 billion monarch butterflies were recorded during their annual migration from the United States to Mexico for the winter; now that number is less than 57 million. “That's more than a 90 percent decline in a short period of time, largely due to changes we have made in our agricultural practices,” says Sylvia Fallon, a senior scientist with NRDC’s Land and Wildlife program. Do your part to recoup those numbers by planting milkweed.

Just Add Water. If you already have a birdbath, you’re all set. Provide some pebbles or rocks as “islands” in the dish so pollinators—especially small bees—won’t drown.

Leave It Alone. Stop obsessing over perfectly planted flower beds and weed-free lawns. Think about your garden as a habitat for wildlife rather needing to have a finely manicured lawn. Yards and gardens that provide food, nutrition, and shelter for pollinators and other critters can still be beautiful. Don’t think of clover as a weed to get rid of—bees need it. Instead of wiping a plot clean to make a new garden bed from scratch, leave wild spaces—especially meadows of wildflowers—as they are.


What to Plant

Try some of these native plants, which should thrive in our area while attracting wildlife.

Bee and butterfly populations have been decreasing in recent years. By taking action now, all of us can help by planting flowers and shrubs that attract pollinators.

In general, bees like white, blue, purple, and yellow flowers and hummingbirds love red tubular shaped flowers. Select flowers with abundant supplies of nectar and pollen. By observing the plants in your garden, you will soon learn which are the most visited by bees and other pollinators.

American native perennials, or wildflowers, with long bloom periods, prolific flowers, and colors attractive to pollinators can be combined to provide a pollinator paradise from late spring through fall. Use them to design a garden area or meadow that will provide pollinators, birds, and other wildlife with food and shelter. Good perennial choices include columbine, lupine, foxglove, coreopsis, coneflower, milkweed, wild bergamot, sweet Joe-Pie, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, and aster.

Annuals: Many popular annual flowers, or bedding plants, have been bred for attractive characteristics such as new colors and fancy flower forms, and in the process may have lost some of their appeal to pollinators. Some annuals, however, are good pollinator plants. These include sweet alyssum, ageratum, borage, cosmos, spiderflower, sunflower (Helianthus, but avoid pollenless varieties), Mexican sunflower, pineapple sage, and some types of zinnia and verbena.

Herbs: Basil, borage, catmint, chives, lavender, oregano, and rosemary are all highly attractive to honey bees and some other pollinators if allowed to bloom. Intersperse these herbs in your vegetable garden to invite the pollinators in.

Shrubs, Trees: Woody flowering shrubs and trees can be good pollen and nectar resources, especially if they flower at a time of year when there are few other plants in bloom, early in spring or late into fall. Fruit trees, such as apple, cherry, peach, and plum, need insect pollination to set fruit. Other trees around you, such as red maple, oak, wild cherry, horse chestnut, tupelo, basswood, and black locust are also of value to pollinators. Even though many are wind-pollinated, bees and other insects still use their flowers as food sources.


Source: UNH Cooperative Extension,

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