Alternative Pollination Methods: Tips For Attracting Alternative Pollinators

Alternative Pollination Methods: Tips For Attracting Alternative Pollinators

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Honeybees are valuable plant pollinators, but each year we lose one-third of the honeybee colonies in the United States to colony collapse disorder. Additional colonies are lost to mite infestations, viruses, fungi and insecticide poisoning. This article explains how to attract and use alternative pollinators to bees.

What Are Alternative Pollinators?

Eighty percent of the fruit, nuts and seeds that make up the American diet depend on animal pollinators, including insects, birds and mammals. In the past, gardeners depended on honeybees, but with the decline in the honeybee population, the focus is shifting to alternative pollinators in the garden.

There are about 3,500 additional species of bees in the United States, some of which make excellent alternative pollinators. While honeybees pollinate flowers by visiting them one after another, carrying the pollen from flower to flower in the process, other species pollinate in different ways.

For instance, bumblebees pollinate flowers by buzzing them. They hang under a flower and vibrate it with their wings so that the pollen falls onto their body. Bumblebees have proven to be even more effective than honeybees at pollinating tomatoes and members of the blueberry family, which includes cranberry, bearberry, huckleberry and manzanita as well as blueberries.

Long tubular flowers need the long beak of a hummingbird or an insect with a long proboscis that can reach down into the throat and retrieve the pollen.

Size matters when it comes to pollination. Small, delicate flowers need the light touch of a small pollinator such as butterflies. Flowers with large grains of pollen need a big, strong insect or bird that can carry the grains away.

Attracting Alternative Pollinators

The best method of attracting alternative pollinators is to plant a diverse garden that will attract many kinds of pollinators. Native plants work well with native insect populations. Some pollinating insects are available for purchase, but if you don’t have enough flowering plants to support them, they won’t stay around long. Avoid insecticides when trying to attract pollinating insects.

Alternative Pollination Methods

While you build your population of alternative pollinators in the garden, you may have to depend on alternative pollination methods to ensure a successful crop. You can hand-pollinate small flowers, such as tomatoes, by dabbing inside several flowers with a small, soft artist’s brush or cotton swab.

With larger flowers such as cucumbers and squash, it’s easier to remove the petals of a male flower and swirl the stamen around in several female flowers. You can tell male from female flowers by looking at the top of the stem, just below the flower. Female flowers have a swollen structure that will grow into a fruit with successful pollination.

If you want the pollinators for your garden, build an ecosystem

At this point in the planting calendar, crops of all kinds are going into the soil in the hopes that soon they'll be producing a bountiful harvest.

You've gone to great lengths to make sure that everything is perfect from the soil, to the raised garden bed, and irrigation. But without an important visitor, all that work could be for naught.

That visitor is the pollinator. They are the key to getting the produce you're looking for. And the best way to get pollinators into your garden is to develop a small, native ecosystem.

Planting native flowers in the garden will help to bring in native bees and other pollinators, which are the key to getting yourself a good harvest from your vegetables.

The important thing to remember here is that not all flowers will bring the pollinators in. Tropical hybrids look pretty to humans, but the bees you want to attract won't be very interested.

It takes a little research to make sure that the plants you're getting are the kind you're looking for, but that research will be worth it when you're noticing a bump in your harvest.

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Bee Informed: Sustainability, Alternative Pollinators, and Resilience Gardens

Photo Credit: Leafcutter Bee, Megachile rotundata. Photo by USGS Bee Inventory,

Each month our Bee Informed Blog will highlight current news, science, and research related to solitary bee conservation, food insecurity, and sustainability.

This article, published in Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, explores the contributions of bees towards achieving the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are the blueprint to achieve a better more sustainable future for all people on the planet. The article shows the crucial role bees play in meeting the SDGs through providing: 1) quantity and quality of food, 2) nutrition and medicine, 3) inclusive communities, 4) biofuels, 5) forest conservation and regrowth, 6) healthy and diverse ecosystems, 7) economic opportunities, and 8) innovation and inspiration. Click here to read the article.

Image Credit: United Nations Department of Global Communications

This publication, by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, provides information and resources on how to plan for, protect and create habitat for native bees in agricultural settings. Creating and preserving native bee habitat benefits farmers of specialty crops such as almonds, apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, pears, plums, squash, tomatoes, and watermelons. But, it is not just the crops WE eat that depend on native pollinators. Oil and biofuel crops such as canola and sunflower require bee pollination. Even meat and dairy industries are dependent on bee pollination for the production of forage seed such as alfalfa and clover. Often, these native pollinators are more efficient than honey bees! Click here to access the publication.

This opinion piece - written by Sheila Colla, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at York University - discusses the benefits of planting "resilience gardens" to help mitigate food security issues related to crises. These types of gardens can support native biodiversity and pollinators, provide mental health benefits, and provide local fruits and vegetables to food-insecure areas. Click here to read the entire Op-ed.

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

Help the Pollinators – Plant a Pollinator Garden

A sunny site is key. Your garden should receive at least 6 hours of sun. Plants in the sun will bloom more, their flowers will produce more nectar, and you will see far more pollinator activity than plants in the shade.

Plant a variety of plants. You will need plants that attract the pollinators from spring through autumn. Concentrate on plants that bloom in summer and beyond. Late season blooming plants provide rich nectar sources when pollinators need them the most. Make sure to plant four main types of plants in your garden: annuals, perennials, native plants, and shrubs.

When creating a pollinator garden plant groupings of the same plant in odd numbers (3, 5, 7) instead of just one of anything. This will help attract more pollinators and it will also make your garden look more appealing. The leaves are meant to be eaten. A caterpillar will not turn into a butterfly or moth unless it feeds on the leaves for several weeks first.

Don't use organic or conventional pesticides.

Below is a partial list of suggestions on what plants to choose. Make sure to read the label before purchasing to see if they are ok to plant in your zone.

Native wildflowers are: swamp milkweed, blazing star, beardtongue and coneflowers.

Tall plants are Joe Pye Weed, asters, and anise hyssop.

Annuals (need to be planted every year): Supertunia, salvia, lantana, superbells, and verbena.

Perennials: lavender, monarda, salvia, verbena, and sedum

Shrubs: lilac, spirea, viburnum, willows, dogwoods, false indigo, and butterfly bush

(Article by June Meitzner, Dodge County Certified U OF M Extension Master Gardener

What NOT to Plant for Pollinators

It is important for the bees to have good sources of pollen and nectar. Ornamental trees, such as the Bradford pear may produce pollen, however it has little to no nutritional value to the bee.

The Bradford pear does not waste its energy on nutritional pollen because it does not make fruit. A similar thing happens with GMO and hybrid plants which also do not require pollination from the bees.

The pollen of ornamental trees, such as the Bradford pear has little to no nutritional value for bees.

Garden Mastery: Plant for the pollinators, which keep our world buzzing with life

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Ah, Spring! The flowers are in bloom, rich in color and scent. Fruit and vegetable crops are showing the beginnings for future harvest. All this beauty and bounty is dependent on a mechanism without which there would be no flowers, fruits, seeds or even plants. That mechanism is called pollination, the process of transferring pollen from male to female flower.

Pollen is a powdery substance, found in the stamen of a male flower, that contains the cells necessary for reproduction. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the anther (male part) to the stigma (female part) of the flower on the same or different plant. When the pollen grain deposits on the stigma, it germinates and migrates into the embryo sac, where fertilization occurs.

The vehicles that transfer pollen from anther (male) to stigma (female) can be through self-pollination (internal transfer of pollen to stigma) or through what are called pollinators, primarily insects, animals or wind. The process of pollination gives us much of the food we eat and the flowers we enjoy.

There are several types of pollinators:

Bees are the most important pollinators, with 35 percent of the food we eat having been pollinated by bees. The European honeybees (Apis mellifera) are the most well known bees for the honey they provide. There are around 20,000 bee species worldwide and 1,600 native to California. Additionally, cutter bees (Megachile spp.) are important native pollinators of North America.

You can invite all bees into your garden by giving them a place to live, food and water. Many native bees live in the ground in burrows or hollow stems. Leaving stems in the garden from flowering plants like bee balm attracts and provides shelter to native bees.

Unlike other insects that derive water from plants, bees need water from an external source. Place a shallow pan lined with rocks and filled with water in the garden. Bees cannot swim and the rocks provide a place to rest while accessing the water. Change the water regularly, as stagnant water is a breeding site for mosquitoes.

    Butterflies and moths catch pollen on their legs and transfer it from flower to flower. Each species of butterfly or moth seeks specific plants for nectar or habitat. Moths are distinguished from butterflies by their wider bodies, less colorful wings, and as nighttime flyers.

    Pollinators are attracted to flowers by their color, shape, size and scent. Each pollinator type has different needs. Master Gardener Peggy Kenney, a pollinator specialist, recommends planting a diverse mix of flowering plants so that something is blooming all four seasons. Plant varieties native to your local area, because pollinators are better adapted to native plants. Some seek specific plant varieties.

    Also, allow the garden to go wild. Gardens with leaves on the ground and a few weeds mimic more natural habitat and encourages pollinators.

    For a list of plants that attract specific pollinators, read the article, “How to Attract and Maintain Pollinators in Your Garden.”

    A tip for vegetable gardeners is to mix flowers in vegetable beds at the same time the vegetable garden is planted to increase biodiversity of plants. Early blooming plants attract pollinators just in time to pollinate the vegetables.

    However, pollinators can be at risk. Their numbers have been declining due to habitat loss, drought and parasites such as the Varroa mite, fungi, viruses and exposure to pesticides. Reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides is one way home gardeners can improve conditions for pollinators. At all times, look for alternatives to pesticides or select pollinator-friendly products, and follow the Integrated Pest Management guidelines to a healthy garden.

    More information on pollinator safety can be found at UC Statewide IPM Program,

    In addition, when purchasing plants for your garden, ask if the plant was sprayed with pesticides at any time. Systemic pesticides are absorbed by plant tissue, resulting in the nectar and pollen becoming toxic to pollinators. The result might be inadvertent harm to the pollinators and other beneficial insects.

    Attract pollinators to your garden by adding pollinator-friendly plants and reducing or eliminating pesticide use. The result will be a thriving garden filled with color, scent, life and beauty.

    Jodi Bay, a Master Gardener since 2012, is an instructor in the Beginning Vegetable Gardening workshops. Get free gardening advice on the Master Gardener Hotline, (858) 822-6910, or by email at [email protected] Due to COVID-19, the hotline staff members are working remotely to ensure that they respond to your questions in a timely manner.

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    Watch the video: How To Attract Pollinators To Your Garden! Be Kind to Bee Kind!


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