Sunday, May 3, 2009

"Pollinator" gardens

So, until a few days ago, I had never heard the term "Pollinator garden". Apparently it’s a popular term among gardeners now. A few days ago a local naturalist contacted me about a pollinator garden she is designing and wanted some tips. She is a fantastic ecologist, and educator, and I was really flattered she contacted me, so I was eager to help. I played it cool like I knew exactly what she was talking about; I did not want to expose my gardening naïveté. After we spoke, however, I went home and did some research on what a "pollinator garden" was. Surprisingly (to me), there was a lot of information out there, and I even found a recent article in the New York Times (here), and commentary on that article by Town Mouse/Country Mouse.

A pollinator garden is one that is designed to provide flowers for pollinators. Right away I felt myself becoming frustrated with the term “pollinator garden” for its focus on (1) flowers and (2) one category of wildlife.

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a pollinator garden, per say, and there are certainly many benefits. I am really encouraged that native plants are getting recognized for their vital role in supporting pollinators, but I am not sure this is the appropriate context. The term that should be used is “ecosystem”. More on that later.

If “pollinator gardening” as a concept sparks interest in someone to garden, to garden with native plants or garden for the first time, then it is incredibly valuable. Similarly, if a pollinator garden encourages more people to remove parts of their lawn, then again it is fantastic, and very beneficial to wildlife. So there are many positives with the burgeoning pollinator garden popularity. I wonder if the pollinator garden movement can be traced back to a fantastic book called “The Forgotten Pollinators” by Buchmann, Nabhan, and Mirocha. If you haven’t read it, give it a read.

Although pollinator gardeners might provide nectar to pollinators and help attract some insects, the real problem is we have made vast expanses of land unrecognizable to native pollinators (and many other species of wildlife) by converting our native plant communities to ones that resemble plant communities in other parts of the world. But recent evidence suggests that by using native plants in urban, and suburban landscaping, we can reverse the declines of native insects, and ultimately higher trophic organisms. Douglas Tallamy has written books and papers on this subject (click here for more information and downloads).

However, my first reaction is that “pollinator gardens” are another example of a failed attempt at “single species management”. That is agency-speak for when you manage for one species (often the wrong one), with the intention of protecting the ecosystem. When in fact it is often backward. As I have mentioned before, we need to distance ourselves from the idea of planting a single species to attract a single species or life stage of the species, and garden with a broader understanding of biology and ecology.

"Pollinators" as a group are diverse; they range from ants, to birds to bats. If your goal is to provide habitat or food for pollinators, for example, your garden should be equally diverse to be effective. Furthermore when people think of “pollinator gardening,” most people plant flowers that may attract adult bees or butterflies. However what is truly limiting to many pollinators (especially butterflies and moths), are the plants that host their larval stage. The larval stage is so important- but we don’t garden for it explicitly because we don’t witness the larval stage of pollinators very much. I don't see too many people planting expanses of prairie June grass to promote the larval skippers, though that might be the most important plant in a pollinator garden.

So that brings me back to my ongoing philosophy of wildlife gardening with native plants: think broadly, think holistically, and think of diversity- diversity of structure, diversity of species, and diversity of life stages. Ecosystems are complex and it’s not effective to match one species of plant to one species of animal.

In the end, pollinator gardens are not that bad, and probably a very good thing, but it is a shame the idea is so close to articulating the importance of native plant communities and promoting conservation and restoration of ecosystems, if even at the scale of a suburban yard.


  1. You have to remember that gardening is no longer just the business of the gardener. It is an industry. So catch-phrases such as butterfly, hummingbird, and "pollinator"/bee gardening are essential to marketing.

    Wildlife management just doesn't seem to bring in the bucks.

  2. Maybe you should just expand your definition of a pollinator garden. Doesn't your garden attract plenty of pollinators? We understand that there is more to it than just providing flowers.We understand about providing a diverse native community including host plants and nesting sites and We understand that a good pollinator garden will include other wildlife. We understand about not using pesticides and fertilzer. Maybe that is what you should explain to the person asking your advise.

  3. A well thought out "pollinator garden" is hardly an example of "single-species management." The goal of a pollinator garden is to provide food resources and nest sites for diverse pollinators, including the thousands of species of butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, and other pollinators. Many pollinator species form specialized relationships with certain groups of native plants; for example native, solitary bees that specialize on Allium flowers, or on Sedum flowers. If done right, a pollinator garden designed to attract diverse pollinators will, by default, include primarily native plants that these organisms specialize on (including both adult and larval stages), as well as some bare ground and above-ground cavities for bee nesting, and will not utilize pesticides. These attributes will make them attractive spaces to other forms of wildlife too.

    The problem isn’t the concept. If, by calling it a “pollinator garden,” people are encouraged to garden this way who wouldn’t otherwise, that is all the better. I agree that there are often some problems with the execution, but am seeing a growing movement towards better design, with more attention paid to details like larval plants for lepidopterans and nest sites for native, solitary bees.