Bees pollinate a Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) while feeding.

Bees pollinate a Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) while feeding. © J Michael Raby

They fly, flutter, flap, crawl, sip, chew, gather, and adorn our yards with rich colors and interesting sounds. Buzzing bees, fluttering butterflies, darting hummingbirds – they are the pollinators, performing one of the most important jobs in nature, pollination.

On a quest for the energy-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen inside flowers, pollinators inadvertently pick up grains of pollen from a male flower part and deposit them on a female part – a process called pollination. This transfer of pollen enables flowering plants to produce fruits and seeds, safeguarding the next generation of plants.

We can thank pollinators for one out of every three bites of food we eat. About 35% of the world’s food crops and 75% of all flowering plants need pollinators to reproduce. Without pollinators, these plants would not survive, and neither would we!

Native plants in your yard and garden provide essential food and habitat for pollinators.

Because pollinators co-evolved with their natural surroundings, native plants provide the best source of food for them, as well as nesting material, cover from predators, and protection from harsh weather. By incorporating native plants in your yard, you can offer a safe haven for pollinators, and in turn be rewarded with a bounty of flowers, fruits, and seeds.

The Buzz on Bees

Bees pollinate many of New Jersey’s most important crops, including tomatoes, peppers, soybeans, peaches, blueberries, and cranberries. Although the European honey bee is the most widely recognized bee, there are dozens of native bees that buzz around our yards, transferring pollen from flower to flower. Bumble, digger, leafcutter, mason, and sweat bees are a few of the hairy natives that crawl inside a flower, comb the anthers with their stiff hairs, and gather pollen. This labor-intensive job requires a lot of energy. Flowers provide bees with a sugary energy drink called nectar, which helps to sustain them throughout the day. This sweet treat lures bees into the flowers, ensuring pollination.

Honey bees are responsible  for pollination of our major food crops.

Honey bees are responsible for pollination of our major food crops. © Danny Perez

Hummingbirds

The ruby-throated hummingbird, found east of the Appalachian Mountains, is New Jersey’s only hummingbird. This long-billed bird flaps its wings 70-80 times per second, a pace that requires a considerable amount of energy. Hummingbirds are attracted to brightly colored red, orange, or yellow flowers which “advertise” the sweet nectar inside. Native plants that co-evolved with hummingbirds usually have tube-shaped flowers, perfectly adapted to fit the hummingbird’s long bill and even longer tongue. When a hummingbird dips it bill into the tubular face of the flower, pollen grains brush against it and are carried out and over to the next flower, resulting in pollination.

photo of Ruby throated hummingbird.

Ruby throated hummingbirds play a significant role in pollination in New Jersey. © Kelly Cogan Azar

Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies bring joy to the garden with their brightly colored wings and graceful flight. They navigate through the yard in search of food, water, minerals, and a place to lay their eggs. Unlike bees and hummingbirds, butterflies are unable to hover and need some place to land while feeding. They are attracted to bright colors, including red and purple, and flower shapes that offer an ample-sized landing pad. Using their long, hollow tongues like straws to suck up nectar, butterflies can reach into flowers with deeply hidden supplies. Pollen sticks to their legs, mouth parts, and wings, ready for transfer to the next flower.

A monarch butterfly feeds on Butterfly Weed

A monarch butterfly feeds on Butterfly Weed, a great native plant for flower gardens in New Jersey. © Rosanna Springston

Moths work the pollinator night shift. With little light to see their target, moths depend more on fragrance to find nectar. Flowers that offer strong, sweet nighttime scents and large amounts of dilute nectar attract these important nocturnal pollinators. Like their butterfly relatives, moths use their long, hollow tongues to feed on nectar. Some species need a landing pad, while others, like the hawkmoth, can hover like a hummingbird while feeding.

Beyond Bees and Butterflies

There are other insects that play an important role in pollination. Less specialized than some other pollinators, beetles and flies are well-adapted to pollinate a large variety of flowers, shrubs, and trees. They come in various shapes, sizes, and colors; many even mimic the color and design of bees. Some beetles and flies prefer strong scents, either fruity or fetid, and some prefer white- or green-colored flowers, including paw-paws and magnolia, as well as plants in the carrot family. Wasps are mostly known as insect feeders, but many species also eat nectar and pollen to meet their high energy needs, transferring pollen in the process.

Picky Eaters

Pollinators co-evolved with native plants and need them for food, shelter, and nesting sites. Many pollinators are “picky eaters,” attracted to the unique chemistry of certain native plant materials, and have evolved to lay their eggs only on specific native plants that provide the nutrients needed by their young. Non-native plants used in landscapes are often not as nutritious and sometimes are even inedible to pollinators. Besides being a preferred food source, native plants also provide pollinators with nesting material, cover from predators, and a safe place to escape the elements and overwinter.

Pollinators in Trouble

Due to the loss of natural habitats and the widespread use of pesticides, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators are in trouble. Shrinking food sources as a result of habitat loss along the migration routes of Monarchs and other migrating butterflies are causing sharp declines in populations of these pollinators. Non-migrating species which overwinter in New Jersey also face a lack of food and habitat. Pesticide overuse and misuse has killed hundreds of thousands of pollinating insects. Scientists studying colony collapse disorder in honey bees are finding evidence that pesticide exposure plays a key role in this serious problem.

Saving the Pollinators – Gardeners to the Rescue!

By planting a variety of natives and limiting pesticide use in your Jersey-Friendly yard, you can provide much-needed healthy habitat for pollinators and help reverse the decline in their populations.

photo of a flower garden for pollinators

A garden with a variety of plants will attract a variety of pollinators. © Debbie Ross

To help pollinators find their favorite flowers more easily, group your native plants according to similar characteristics, such as color, odor, and flower shape. Pollinators also benefit from continuous blooms throughout the entire growing season, from early spring to late fall. Link your native plantings with those of neighbors to create even larger habitat areas. Connecting corridors of food and habitat are especially important for migrating pollinators like the Monarch butterfly, as well as long-distance foragers.

Better for Us Too

A pollinator-friendly yard is a better yard for us too! More pollinators guarantee successful fruit and seed production, rewarding us with a bounty of fruits, veggies, and flowers. Birds and other wildlife will be attracted to the insect pollinators brought in by pollinator-friendly native plants. And watching the birds, butterflies, and bees in our yards connects us to nature and brings beauty and enjoyment to our yards.

Additional Resources

Michigan State University: Native Plants and Ecosystem Services
Pollinator Partnership and NAPPC
The Nature Conservancy: Explore – The Buzz on Pollinators
Xerces Society: Pollinator Plants, the Mid-Atlantic Region
Rutgers University and Bryn Mawr College Pamphlet
USDA: Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants
USDA: The Importance of Pollinators
USDA: Why is Pollination Important for Native Wildflowers
USDA: Insects and Pollinators
USDA: Our Future Flies on the Wings of Pollinators