10 Ways to Help Pollinators: Save Bees, Butterflies & Beyond
Did you know that June is National Pollinator Month here in the US? While I believe we should always have pollinators in our minds and hearts, June is an excellent time to dig in and give pollinators some extra love. The purpose of pollinator month is to spread awareness about the plight of pollinators, and encourage folks to take action to help support their declining populations. Thank you for your interest in this mission!
Read along to learn 10 ways to help save pollinators, including things you can do at home, in your community, and beyond! Most of the ways we can help pollinators seem small and easy to do – but can add up to make a big difference! Pollinator populations are impacted by human lives and our daily decisions in more ways than most people realize. Furthermore, human lives depend on pollinators far more than we give them credit for! Pollinators are a critical part of our food systems, environment, and economy.
“Without the actions of pollinators, agricultural economies, our food supply, and surrounding landscapes would collapse.”Pollinators.org
Before we dive into 10 ways to help save pollinators, let’s quickly get acquainted with exactly who pollinators are, and why they need our help!
Who are Pollinators?
When you hear the word “pollinators”, most folks immediately think of bees – and for a good reason! Bees are one of the most prominent and important pollinators of them all, including native bees. As bees buzz from flower to flower, they pick up and carry pollen. Thousands of plants depend on this transfer of pollen between flowers (aka, the act of pollination) to reproduce and bear fruit or seeds, including most food crops.
However, many other insects and animals play a role in pollination too! This includes butterflies, moths, birds, bats, ants, beetles, other animals, and even the wind. Humans could be dubbed pollinators at times, such as when assisting with hand-pollination (like we do with our squash flowers). However, the term is usually reserved for those that perform it naturally in the wild.
Pollinators are considered a keystone species group. The National Geographic Society describes a keystone species as “a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. Without keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.” In fact, pollinators are directly responsible for one-third of all food that humans consume, including everything from fruit and veggies to coffee and chocolate – some of my very favorite things!
Why are pollinators dying?
As our natural world becomes increasingly urbanized and polluted, pollinators are taking a big hit along with it. Bees are especially sensitive creatures and are very, very susceptible to the pesticides commonly used in conventional agriculture operations. The most lethal of them all (to bees) are neonicotinoids, which according to Cornell University are also the most widely used class of insecticides used in the world. One small exposure can take out an entire colony of bees. However, any broad-spectrum pesticide use puts pollinators at risk, including outside of a commercial farm setting! This includes residential use, at parks, on golf courses, on public right-of-ways, and more.
Furthermore, natural habitats and food sources for pollinators are being altered, destroyed, or contaminated by expanding agriculture and “urban sprawl” development. Last but not least, our changing climate and weather patterns are negatively impacting many plants, animals, and ecosystems, including our pollinator friends.
Yikes. That all sounds pretty depressing, right? It certainly is… Yet the good news is: WE CAN HELP! Even more, most of the ways we can help save pollinators also benefit our personal wellness and the overall environment too. Consider it a “win” for all.
10 WAYS TO HELP SAVE POLLINATORS
1) Plant for Pollinators
One of the best ways to help struggling pollinator populations is to create a pollinator-friendly garden, incorporating plants that provide nectar and pollen. Give preference to plants that are native to your area, which are best suited to both your climate and the pollinators that live there! Blooming trees are also highly attractive to pollinators. Even if you don’t have an extensive garden or large outdoor space, consider adding a few potted flowering plants to a balcony, patio, or window planter box. Many of the best plants for pollinators are low-maintenance and container-friendly!
Aim to supply diverse and sustained food sources by planting a variety of annual and perennial plants, including ones that flower at different times of the year. Also, keep in mind that most (but not all) flowers produce pollen or nectar, which is what pollinators need to sustain life. Need ideas on what kind of flowers to plant? Check out our Top 23 Plants for Pollinators article, or our 7 Easy Companion Flowers to Grow From Seed list. Both articles discuss the characteristics of each plant, including zone suitability, general care tips, and our favorite varieties.
In our garden, the lavender, salvia, verbena, zinnia, borage and flowering herbs are always buzzing with the most bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies!
2) Create a Wildlife-Friendly Yard, Beyond Flowers
While flowers are essential, pollinators need other key elements to thrive! Do your best to provide habitat and supplemental food sources that support a variety of pollinators and wildlife. For example, add hummingbird feeders, bird houses, a solitary bee house, a mason bee house, bird feeders, bird baths, or even bat boxes to your outdoor space. Put out shallow water baths for bees, such as a bird bath or shallow dish with stones or rocks in it.
Allow some areas of your yard to grow “wild” and less manicured, which provides safe spots for nesting and shelter. Be conscientious when pruning trees, vines, and shrubs, especially during known bird nesting seasons. Let some of the wild “weeds” in your yard stay to bloom, such as dandelion. Also, avoid dead-heading all your spent flowers. The birds will appreciate eating the seeds!
Shelter, food, water, and places to raise young are all key components of a healthy wildlife habitat. Did you know that a schoolyard, workplace, or residential garden can actually become a Certified Wildlife Habitat? Our property is certified! Check out this article to learn more about how to join us. If you’re interested in hanging a hummingbird feeder, see our simple hummingbird nectar recipe and feeder best practices here.
2023 Update: I’ve also created a guide on how to create a bird-friendly garden – including best practices on maintaining bird feeders, baths and houses.
3) Avoid Using Pesticides
Help save pollinators by avoiding the use of chemical or synthetic pesticides at home. Instead, manage your yard or garden in a natural and organic manner. There are many ways to combat “pests” in a way that will not negatively impact beneficial insects like bees, parasitic wasps, and butterflies. In fact, beneficial insects themselves can be used to reduce pest insect populations!
For example, native American ladybugs, lacewings, and praying mantis eat many soft-bodied pest insects like aphids. Releasing them in your garden is considered a form of biological pest control – as opposed to chemical. Similarly, parasitic wasps can help control cabbage worms and beneficial nematodes can eliminate curl grubs. The use of companion plants, polyculture, and physical barriers (like hoops and row covers) are other non-chemical means to reduce pests.
There are also many homemade or mild sprays that can be used to control garden pests, such as this DIY soap spray recipe for aphids and mealybugs. Even then, many “organic” pesticide products can harm bees and beneficial insects if applied incorrectly. Therefore, please do thorough research before using any kind of spray! Check out this article to learn about 25 different organic ways to manage garden pests.
4) Go Organic
Beyond your garden, go organic in as many ways possible – such as buying organic products and food. Supporting sustainable, pollinator-friendly farms keeps them in business – and the bees safe! Don’t forget to hit up your local Farmer’s Market too. Even if they are not “certified” organic, many small local farms are much more cautious about pesticide use. Furthermore, buying organic goods lessens the demand for conventional (toxic) products. This is better for everyone and everything, including your personal health. Even your choice in cotton balls, clothing, personal care products, and garden seeds has a trickle-down effect to pollinators.
5) Plant Butterfly Host Plants
Butterflies depend on “host plants” to reproduce and thus survive. Adult butterflies lay their eggs on a host plant, and when their larvae (caterpillars) emerge from eggs, they feed on the plant – until they too can grow up to become a beautiful butterfly. However, caterpillars won’t eat any old plant! Each species of butterfly has a particular host plant that their caterpillar babies will eat. Some caterpillars are very picky and will feed on one type of plant only, while others have a slightly wider appetite.
For example, milkweed is the sole source of food for monarch butterfly caterpillars. While there are many varieties of milkweed that they’ll eat, monarchs will ONLY eat milkweed. Gulf fritillary populations depend on passion flower vines. On the other hand, Swallowtail butterflies are less picky and will dine on dill, fennel, carrot greens, and parsley. So, plant extra and plan to share! Scatter native wildflower seeds to support native butterflies and moths.
Visit American Meadows for a more complete list of butterfly host plants, including trees, shrubs, and flowers. Or, see our article all about raising monarch butterflies if that strikes your fancy!
6) Make an Impact Outside Your Home
There are a number of ways to help save pollinators beyond the borders of your own garden. If you live in an HOA, apartment complex, or other maintained community, talk to the folks responsible for landscape management about pollinators, pesticide use, and organic gardening options. Ask questions and share information at your workplace too. Perhaps they’ll be willing to make some beneficial changes! Even the time of day that sprays are applied can help save pollinators; bees are far less active in the evening hours, at sunset or after.
7) Support Beekeepers
Supporting beekeepers is an excellent way to help encourage healthy pollinator populations. How? Buy local honey and beeswax products! Just like going organic, it is all about supply and demand. Consuming local honey also has the added benefit of inoculating your immune system with local pollen, which over time helps reduce your seasonal allergy response. Most often, local honey is sold at local farmers markets along with small shops, or direct from the keeper. Even when I can’t find local beeswax, I always choose natural beeswax candles over classic petroleum-based candles (yuck!) or even soy candles, since soy is a very pesticide-heavy crop.
8) Start Keeping Bees Yourself
Now, I realize this option isn’t for everyone. Nor will I pretend to be an expert on this subject myself! While our garden is filled with hundreds of visiting bees each day, we have yet to venture into the wonderful world of beekeeping. It is a dream for our future farm property though. I have heard that Flow Hives are very simple to get going and maintain. To learn more, consider checking out the highly-rated Beekeeper’s Bible Book or Beekeeping for Dummies. If you know of any other great beginner beekeeping resources, please drop them in the comments below!
If it is within your means, donating to relevant non-profits is an awesome option to help save pollinators – especially if you don’t have a yard space to put the other tips we’ve explored to work. Or, in addition to! Here at Homestead and Chill, we donate a portion of the proceeds from our shop items (organic sourdough starter and organic t-shirts) to wildlife and pollinator non-profits each year.
Listed below are a handful of non-profit organizations that are dedicated to helping protect pollinators and their natural habitats – though the list is by no means comprehensive!
- Pollinator Partnership
- The Xerces Society
- The Honeybee Conservancy
- Save Our Monarchs
- Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund
- The Nature Conservancy
- The National Wildlife Federation
10) Spread the Love
Talk to your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers about the importance of pollinators! Encourage them to get involved and make small but impactful changes too. Give pollinators and wildlife-friendly gifts for special occasions, such as packets of wildflower seeds, local honey, bird houses, or hummingbird feeders. Last but not least, share this article and other pro-pollinator messages on social media!
And that sums up 10 simple but meaningful ways you can personally help save pollinators!
I hope this article provided insight and inspiration on a few changes or new steps you can take to protect pollinators in your area. Every little bit counts. You know what they say… think globally, act locally! Please feel free to ask questions, or chime in with other ways to make a difference in the comments below. Thank you for tuning in and spreading the word! Last but not certainly not least, the pollinators thank you for your efforts too.
If you enjoyed this article, don’t miss out on:
- Top 23 Plants for Pollinators: Attract Bees, Butterflies & Hummingbirds
- How to Attract, Raise & Release Wild Monarch Butterflies
- Homemade Hummingbird Nectar Recipe & Feeder FAQs
- How to Turn Your Yard or Garden into a Certified Wildlife Habitat
- 7 Easy Annual Companion Flowers to Grow From Seed
- Companion Planting 101 (with Garden Companion Planting Chart)
- Organic Pest Control: 25 Ways to Stop Pests from Destroying Your Garden
- How to Kill or Remove Your Grass (and Grow Food, Not Lawns!)
Hi, Thanks for your article. I’m curious if there could be a conflict between bees and birds in terms of plants selected or do they come to ‘an agreement’. I’ve noticed a ‘pecking order’ in regards to birds of different types and ages, as well as squirrels when visiting the bird feeder. Thanks again.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Dan, hummingbirds and bees can sometimes compete over the same food source but it isn’t anything we have ever noticed to be a problem. We try and have a lot of perennial and annual plants throughout our space that contain pollen and nectar to offer food sources to a variety of pollinators. Hope that helps and good luck!
Deanna “Kitty” Cat/ Aaron,
Thanks for the article.
I recently learned of Bee Baths via Verge Permaculture’s PDC.
Bees need to drink, who knew???
Bee well in the meantime.
I live in a concrete urban community where there is a real challange with polinators. My garden is entirely a container garden spanning a measly 10×20 ft but I make sure I cram in as many flowering plants as possibly in between my edibles. I have a stack of old cardboard on top of my tools shelf from online shopping and recently I discovered that local stingless bees have taken up residence by making a home in the corrugated ends of the cardboard. These same bees are now busy buzzing around my cucumbers every morning and I guess it was win win for both.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
That’s amazing to hear Richard, thank you for helping out the pollinators where you can and happy gardening to you!
Is Milkweed safe to use with free range chickens? I have read that it is toxic to animals.
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hello Sharon, we don’t keep any Milkweed around our chickens but we don’t keep any plants around our chickens that we care about since they can be quite destructive at times. To our knowledge of Milkweed is that it is toxic to most or all animals and Monarch caterpillars are the only animal that feeds on it, birds don’t even eat Monarch caterpillars because of this. However, I would try and find a place that is unaccessible to your flock where the plants can grow undisturbed. Hope that helps and good luck!
I love seeing all of my pollinator friends in the garden. Some of my favorite plants are all salvias, Russian sage, zinnas, and sunflowers. New things for me this year are calendula, cosmos and letting more bolted veggie flowers stay.
Thank you so much for featuring me in this article Deanna! As always, it’s so well written, so informative, and so beautifully captured!! It was a true honor to be included!!! Love you!!