If you’re growing veggies in your container garden, you most likely need pollinators! They’re vital for flowering plants to produce fruit and play an important role in plant life … and all life, for that matter! Seventy-five percent of our food depends on pollinators. Once you know how to attract pollinators to your vegetable garden, you’ll have lots of help growing amazing produce.
And in turn, you’ll be supporting an important part of the ecosystem that is currently suffering because of pollution, loss of habitat due to urban sprawl, climate change and deforestation. Pollinator populations are dwindling, and one in four bee species are now considered at risk of extinction.
Creating pollinator habitats helps our gardens, and even more important, it helps the bees.
Along with our bee friends, other pollinators include butterflies, moths, wasps, some small birds and some other insects.
Good news! There are many ways to attract our pollinator friends. One of the best ways is to grow native plants that will provide nectar throughout the year.
You might be wondering if this is practical even in a container garden … and yes it definitely is (no big surprise, since I’m posting about it on a container gardening site!).
Read on to learn more about why pollinators are important, how bees pollinate, examples of pollinators, how flowers attract pollinators and more. I also share some ideas and recommendations for native plants and other pollinator attractions.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something through these links, we may earn a small commission at no cost to you.
What is pollination?
Pollination is the act of moving pollen from a male flower to a female flower for fertilization and reproduction to occur.
Pollen is a male reproductive cell produced by a flower and carried from the male part (anther) to the female part (stigma).
There, it will germinate, grow into a pollen tube that moves to the ovary, fertilize eggs within the ovary, and develop into fruit and seeds.
Since it’s necessary for plant reproduction, pollination is an essential step in the life cycle of flowering plants, and it’s a critical component of the ecosystem.
So … what are pollinators?
Self-pollinating plants like peppers and tomatoes usually don’t need assistance from pollinators, as their flowers have both male and female parts in close proximity. The pollen doesn’t have far to go.
But plants with separate male and female flowers need some assistance! Pollen can be carried on the wind, in bird feathers or on the feet of pollinator insects.
When most people think about pollinators they think of bees, but butterflies, wasps, moths, flies and beetles are all also pollinators.
How do bees pollinate?
Insects, particularly bees and butterflies, will visit flowers for their sweet nectar. While they are enjoying these sugary snacks, pollen sticks to their feet and wings. When they buzz over to the next flower, they help transfer pollen from flower to flower.
(Did you know that the buzzing of bees actually helps pollination by loosening and disbursing pollen?? Bumblebees vibrate at middle C, bouncing pollen around with them. I had no idea about how bees pollinate until I researched this post. Nature is mind-blowing!)
Examples of pollinators
Bee species that pollinate: bumble bees, mason bees, carpenter bee, honey bees, leaf cutter bee, mason bee.
Butterflies that pollinate include: cloudless sulphur butterfly, eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly, gulf fritillary butterfly and monarch butterflies.
Flies such as flower flies and hover flies are important visitors in the springtime; they may be seen hovering over blossoms looking for nectar. Hover flies resemble bees, but they do not have long tongues; this inability prevents them from probing deeply, therefore, they feed on shallow flowers.
Birds carry around pollen in their feathers, which eventually lands on the next flower it visits. This allows for pollination to occur between plants that are widely separated from each other, even by miles.
The best time to attract pollinators is in the spring and summer, when they are most active and flowers are in bloom.
It’s especially important to provide food sources in early spring, when insects are hatching or emerging from hibernation.
However, it’s important that you provide a source of food throughout the year rather than just at certain times of the year. That ensures they’ll come around frequently and in large enough numbers to pollinate your plants.
Note: Humans can be pollinators too! It’s possible for gardeners to hand-pollinate veggies, but it requires close attention to the timing of male and female flowers and knowledge of the right technique for hand pollination. I’ve done this myself with good success, and I’ve also watched bees and other pollinators bring my garden to life. One example of a happy partnership between nature and people!
Why are pollinators important?
For plants that produce flowers and fruit, pollinators play an important role in their life cycle. They carry pollen from a male flower to a female one, which allows the flower to grow and reproduce.
In other words … without pollinators, there would be no food on our plates!
Pollinator populations have been declining rapidly due to loss of habitats, exposure to chemicals, lack of food sources, natural disasters, climate change or other factors that make their lives difficult.
In addition, human activities such as farming practices can also affect pollinator populations negatively, by reducing the variety and number of flowering plants available for them and disrupting their natural habitats.
Fortunately there are many ways you can attract these vital insects into your garden to help sustain and rebuild their population.
Best ways to attract pollinators
Add flowering plants to your container garden
The best way to attract pollinators is to give them lots of their favorite food source: Flowers!
It’s best to include a variety of flowering plants in your container garden that will bloom throughout the growing season, to keep the pollinator population booming.
Brightly colored flowers or ones that are fragrant will be the most attractive to flying insects like butterflies.
Bees are attracted by bright colors like red or yellow as well as flowers with good scent such as lavender or honeysuckle while butterflies prefer blue-colored flowers with sweet scents such as honeysuckle.
Hummingbirds are attracted to red, orange, and yellow flowers. You can also attract hummingbirds by hanging a feeder in your garden with some sugary water or by having a flower bed filled with trumpet honeysuckles along the border of your garden.
A note about hummingbirds … while they are pollinators, some varieties are also predators of bees and other pollinator insects. If you’re trying to attract bees, I wouldn’t also try to attract hummingbirds to the same space.
Flowers that attract pollinators
Of those that do well in containers, some of the best herbs and flowers for attracting pollinators include:
- Bee balm
- Butterfly bush
Perennial flowers are a great way to ensure you’ll have enough pollinators to fertilize your plants year-round.
Check out my post about the best edible flowers for container gardens for more ideas for annual and perennial flowers.
Flowering herbs like basil, dill, oregano and chamomile will all attract pollinators, when you let them flower. Herbs like parsley and mint provide an enticing scent as well as food for pollinators during the summer months.
Fruit trees also attract pollinators, though many of them are harder to grow in containers than herbs, vegetables and flowers.
Add native plants
Another easy way to attract pollinators is to grow native plants.
Many species of native bees, for example, only visit specific types of native flowers.
So adding native plants to your pollinator garden will attract the pickier ones, and including plants from various families will be more attractive than just plants from one.
If you aren’t sure which plants are native to your area, this native plant finder from the National Wildlife Federation is an amazing resource! With just a little research into local species, you can gather a great list of ideas your neighborhood pollinators will love — and find some that can thrive in containers.
Create a bee-friendly patio, deck or balcony
While it’s unlikely you’ll have the space to create a large bee-friendly area in your container garden, you can do small things to help make it more attractive for these insects.
Bees like tall, straight garden plants, so adding a few of those in your lineup is an easy way to summon some bee friends.
Bees also like to nestle inside plants during the winter months, so planting hollow-stemmed plants will help draw them into your garden.
If you have a small balcony or patio, you could even consider using the space to create your own bee hotel.
What is a bee hotel? A bee hotel is basically a miniature wildlife shelter where bees can nest and hibernate in over winter. These hotels are made from hollow-stemmed plants like bamboo or prune, and the plants are cut to different heights.
You can then place your bee hotels near a water source for easy access. Over time you’ll have a whole network of safe havens where your bees will nest each winter!
If you’re planning on constructing a bee hotel, it’s important to remember this is nesting place for bees and other insects, so make sure there’s no way for rats or mice to get access to the plants inside.
Create designated areas for pollinators
Many people enjoy watching bees or other insects buzzing around their garden, but sometimes they can be a nuisance.
So if you want to attract pollinators into your container garden, and you have enough space to create a special pollinator section, it can help.
For example, you might create a small hollyhock-filled area where they can nest, or you could create an area filled with lavender, bergamot and marigolds to attract butterflies.
Always remember it’s important not to use insecticides around your container garden, as this will kill bees and other pollinators. If necessary, choose organic pesticides and confirm they’re bee-friendly.
Provide water sources
To help bees and other pollinators during the colder months, you can put water out for them to drink. Bees in particular drown easily, so it’s very helpful to give them some assistance.
Since they can’t swim, it’s important to give them somewhere to land so they can drink the water. Luckily, there are lots of different bee-friendly water sources you can use to attract them into your garden.
For example, a shallow pan filled with pebbles, rocks or marbles will allow bees easy access to the water.
A bird bath with some rocks or pebbles also provides a welcoming place for insect pollinators looking for a drink.
You can also create little drinking fountains by filling a saucer or milk carton with sand and placing it in shallow water. With a little careful planning you can easily create a bee-friendly watering hole for your garden!
Provide shelter for pollinators
Shelter is necessary for pollinators because most are active during the daytime and can be harmed or even killed by strong heat, cold and wind.
Shelter is especially important in winter, when temperatures drop too low for them to survive outside out of their nests.
They also use shelters to hide from predators during the night.
Large-foliage plants, rock gardens and hollow-stemmed plants in your container garden will encourage pollinators to visit.
How to support pollinators in your daily life
Pollinators are in danger from the overuse of insecticides and damage to their native habitats.
One of the most important ways you can keep pollinator populations healthy is by becoming more bee-friendly in your daily life.
By choosing natural products like organic cotton rather than treated materials, for example, you reduce demand for insecticides and help more bees survive.
You can also support bees by contributing to organizations out there working hard to help save bees from extinction. Check out this list for more information:
- The Bee Conservancy: working to preserve pollinator populations through education and bee sanctuaries
- The Bee Girl Organization: dedicated to educating communities about conserving bees and their flowers
- World Bee Project – a global honeybee hive monitoring project that uses cloud computing to learn about pollinator habitats
By combining a few of these simple techniques you can help increase the pollinator population in and near your container garden and ensure you will always have help pollinating your veggies …. and plenty of fresh flowers to enjoy throughout the seasons.
More ideas for container garden inspiration:
- How to hand pollinate vegetables
- How to attract dragonflies to your container garden
- Potting soil 101
- Fertilizer 101
- Compost 101
- Container garden planner
- Best edible flowers for container gardens