Gardening | The importance of pollinators like bees and butterflies, even beetles

GardeningJuly 5, 2014 

There are almost 4,000 species of bees in the U.S. Some form loose colonies, others are solitary. More than two-thirds of these bees are ground nesters; others nest in wood.


We would not have fruits like apples, blueberries, peaches, melons and pumpkins without pollinators. Nor would we have vanilla, nuts, coffee, chocolate and even tequila without them.

What is pollination? It is the transfer of pollen from the male flower part to the female flower part. It occurs when pollen is moved within a flower or from one flower to another of the same species. Pollination is the necessary first step leading to fertilization which, in turn, results in successful fruit production, the formation of seeds and the next generation of plants.

Honey bees, the best known and most efficient pollinators, are not native to North America. They were imported from Europe 400 years ago. They are critical to our food production. However, it is important to know that there other pollinators important to our environment.

There are almost 4,000 species of bees in the U.S. Some form loose colonies, others are solitary. More than two-thirds of these bees are ground nesters; others nest in wood. By leaving some bare ground and dead wood for nesting, and by providing wild bees with pollen, nectar and water sources, we can encourage them to support our backyard and agricultural needs.

Interestingly, different bees have tongues of varying lengths. That means different species of bees take food from different flowers.

Butterflies need the daytime warmth of the sun, brightly colored flowers with a good landing platform, water sources and host plants (like dill, fennel and parsley) for their larvae. They are attracted in particular, but not exclusively, to blue, purple and yellow flowering plants. They require open areas with moist earth and stones for perching and puddling. They also need some wind protection.

While butterflies are active during the day, moths, their bodies stouter and hairier than butterflies, perform at night. They pollinate heavily scented white and pale colored flowers that open in late afternoon or evening.

There are more than 30,000 species of beetles in the U.S. The pollinators among them are generalists which are attracted to flowers with a strong scent – sweet, spicy or fermented – like magnolia, sweet shrub, yellow pond lilies and goldenrod. They often favor large flowers with exposed sexual organs. With their mouth adapted for chewing they eat their way through petals and other floral parts. Beetles are less popular than some other pollinators because they leave a mess behind as they drag pollen from flower to flower.

Flies are generalist pollinators, too. They prefer small flowers that bloom in seasonally moist areas and shade. They are also attracted to solidago (goldenrod), and members of the carrot family like Queen Anne’s lace.

Hummingbirds are well known avian pollinators. Their long beaks and tongues are particularly suited for the tubular flowers from which they draw nectar. They carry the pollen that attaches to their feathers from flower to flower. They are attracted to brightly colored flowers, particularly red and yellow.

Note: Bats are pollinators in other parts of the country but not in the coastal plain.

As gardeners, we can embrace these essential creatures by providing them with a pollinator friendly yard. That means we need to avoid using pesticides, especially insecticides, unless absolutely necessary. It means choosing plants that offer nectar and pollen, and supplying shelter and water.

Plan your garden to provide sequential blooms from early spring through late fall. A constant source of pollen and nectar sustains our pollinators. Plant a diverse garden. Annuals like marigolds, petunias and zinnias bloom all season. Perennials like lantana, penstemon, salvia and verbena bloom much of the growing season. Mums, goldenrod and asters add late-season blooms. Rosemary blooms in winter. Include native plants to attract native pollinators. They have evolved together and they meet each other’s needs.

Incorporate several shallow manmade water sources in your garden. Make sure they have with gently sloping for safe access. Add stones for safe perching spots.

What we choose do in our yards and gardens affects our pollinators as well as us. By helping native pollinator populations thrive we support the diverse environment we enjoy.

For more information, go online to Pollinator Partnership Outer Coastal Plain.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at

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