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What is a pollinator?

A pollinator is a creature that helps fertilize flowers by moving pollen from the anther of one flower to the stigma of another. The honey bee is only one of many pollinators.  Other types of bee, butterflies,  beetles, and birds are all pollinators too.

We need pollinators.

Every apple, every almond, every maple key, and even every dandelion seed only exists because pollination has taken place. Many plants depend upon these creatures to carry pollen for them, and in fact, the pollinators and the plants evolved together. The pollinators depend upon the flowers for their food – pollen for protein and nectar for sugar – in return for their fertilization services.

Pollinators need us!

But now, I have found out some facts about wild pollinators that tell me

  • both wild and domestic pollinators are in dire straits
  • wild pollinators can thrive in urban environments
  • each of us can, and must help.

To learn more read the information below, explore the links, or ask the crew.

Follow our story of transforming this front yard from a pollinator’s desert to a pollinator supermarket.

Things you can do:

Create Pollinator Habitat

Pollinators need pollen and nectar for food – native flowers are best.

They need nesting sites – bee and bat boxes, leave some soil exposed for ground dwellers, don’t clean up too much in fall.

They need water with landing places (islands) – perhaps a shallow dish with some stones in it refreshed regularly.

David Suzuki has a great article about creating a bee friendly garden: David Suzuki

Don't Use Pesticides

They kill the good guys as well as the bad guys. If you must use a pesticide, consider when and how to best avoid hurting your beneficial fauna. Here is a great pamphlet on the topic: Pamphlet

Get Involved

Volunteer for pollinator friendly organizations. Help educate people. Support organic farms. Write to your MP and MPP to show your concern for pollinators.

The Canadian Wildlife Foundation has a great website about pollinators in Canada. More info.

Pollinators needs flowers, water, habitat – sounds like a great place for us to hang out too!

Pollinator FAQ:

What is pollination?

Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred from the anther (male part) to the stigma (female part) of the plant, thereby enabling fertilization and reproduction(fruit). This takes place in the angiosperms, the flower bearing plants. Angiosperms and bees appeared on earth at about the same time, and have evolved together. They need each other. No pollinators, no fruit, no seeds, no future plants. Oh my.

What is a pollinator?

A pollinator is a creature that aids in pollination. Bees, insects, butterflies, moths, birds, bats. Many of them evolved along with the plants the provide their food. The pollinator moves pollen from flower to flower as it collects food for itself.  Around the world there has been a dramatic decline of pollinators due to a number of factors: loss of habitat, increased pesticide use, and diseases.

How does the decline in pollinators affect people? Why should I care?

One third of our food supply relies upon pollination. Check out this article from wholefoods: Article

But, even more importantly, many deciduous plants require pollination for reproduction. We need our plants for so much more than food.

Isn't this a topic for farmland? Why is the urban effort important?

Farmland is increasingly a huge monoculture. Even if the crop is something that supplies a food for pollinators, they only have a food supply when that one plant is flowering. In addition, the widespread use of pesticides affects good creatures as well as bad ones. Urban areas tend to have a much broader diversity of plants – everyone wants a garden, or at least a pot of herbs on their balcony. Also, urban areas tend to have pesticide by-laws limiting the use of pesticides. As a result, many creatures are actually surviving much better in the city than in the country. Check out this article from the UK.

And this ted talk: Ted Talk

Aren't Bees dangerous? Don't they sting?

Pollinators aren’t only bees – but lets just discuss bees for a second. There are 800 different species of bees in Canada. The honeybee is only one, and it is not native to North America. It is a domesticated creature, similar to a cow or horse, than can also survive in the wild. Most of these 800 different bees do not form colonies, do not make honey, and therefore have nothing worth protecting. Most of them can’t sting at all. Even if a bee can sting, it will do everything it can to avoid stinging you. It’s gonna die if it stings you. Wasps are a whole other story. Sorry. You can tell the difference because bees are only interested in flowers.

What plants are best for pollinators?

Pollinators and flowers evolved together and first appeared on earth about 140 million years ago in the Cretaceous period.  In order to support the local population of wild bees and other pollinators, it is best to provide the foods that they evolved with – local native flowers. They find their food by flower colour, shape and scent. Many of the cultivated flowers in our gardens have been breed from local natives – however sometimes these flowers fool the pollinators. Sometimes they attract them, but don’t actually have the nectar or pollen for food, or have the nectar or pollen, but the shape of the flower has changed so that the insect can’t get to it. Bees love flowers from the Asteracea family (Daisy, Aster, Sunflower), Fabacea family (legumes such as pea, bean, and lupine), Lamiaceae family (Mint, lavendar and salvias), Rosaceae family (apple, cherry, rose) along with many others (carrot, geranium, verbena, sedums). Hummingbirds are particularly attracted to red flowers with tubular shapes. Butterflies like flowers that have a landing platform such as a cone flower.

What about nesting habitat?

There are 800 different species of bees in Canada – so you can imagine that there are many different nesting habitats for them. Many are solitary – they need a place to lay their eggs, and a place to over winter, but don’t necessarily have a home. They will likely find spaces such as existing holes in wood or the ground. One simple thing you can do, is leave at least some space in your garden as wild as possible over the winter, and cleanup only in spring. Leaf litter and fallen branches provide good winter protection. If you are interested in providing a specific home, bee nesting blocks are solid chunks of wood with holes in them to give wild bees a place to lay their eggs. We are investigating the possibility of providing bee homes to our clients. Please let us know if you are interested.

Pollinator Support Garden – Follow Our Journey

Here at Gardens in the City we’ve decided it’s time to take action to support pollinators. Although I’ve designed and installed many gardens, I’ve never done one with the specific needs of pollinators in mind. Well, here’s my chance to do one practically from scratch, and I’d love to invite you to follow along as we go. Like all gardens, this will not be accomplished overnight, but will be a dialogue with Mother Nature that will unfold over many years.

This is my new house – complete with shrubs planted in 1955. There isn’t a flower to be seen, let alone a native one, and the grassy lawn is a waste of water, time and worry. It is never used except for the weekly mowing activity. So, what should we do?

Bees, butterflies, hover flies and hummingbirds are all native pollinators with slightly different needs. They need places to live, places to reproduce, food for their young and their adult stages. That adds to the usual garden design requirements of attractive yet low maintenance.

Let’s start by looking at what we have to work with:


Site Information

  • house faces North. There is lots of sun right now, but the boulevard tree will grow large in time. (You can’t see the tree in the picture, it is behind the photographer.)
  • the entire area is flat, but slopes slightly towards the street.
  • the neighbours all have lawns, with some foundation plantings. I don’t think that they’d be happy if we removed all of this lawn.
  • the soil is hard compacted clay
  • existing plants: black cedar, yews, spiraea, and snow-on-the-mountain (aka goutweed). (OK, I lied, there are flowers, I just don’t like goutweed).
  • the boulevard section has a youngish tree, and a ditch for rain run off from the street and sidewalk.
  • in the backyard there is already an ancient crab apple (probably not long for this world), a large stand of mint and lemon balm, and some big berry bushes – so the backyard isn’t such a pollen and nectar desert.

Since it’s winter right now, I can spend some time to make some plans and do some research.




 Making a Plan

The basic idea is to create a garden with 4 season interest to both humans and pollinators, remove the yews and replace them with flowering shrubs, increase the size of the existing bed, and diversify the remaining lawn away from a grass monoculture.

What do our creatures need through their 4 seasons? Nesting sites, over wintering sites, food for larvae, food for adults. Pollinators are mostly attracted by colours and scents. Expert advice is that they are more likely to be attracted if there is a larger stand of one type of plant, rather than a mix of plants. Humans want interest through a variety of texture and colour, without looking too messy year around. We are going to aim for an overlap of everyone’s needs with a perennial flower garden that has lots of local native plants in it.

Why remove the yews? Over the years they have gotten too tall and not been properly pruned. Also, they are gymnosperms they don’t provide any support for our pollinators. Instead, let’s plant some flowering shrubs that provide nectar, pollen and later fruit for the creatures that visit our garden.

What to plant in our garden? This is the fun part for a plant junkie like me. I start every garden design with a list of plants that I’d like to use on the site, and then whittle that down until it is reasonable for a garden. I am not going to plant only purely native plants in my garden. While there are good reasons to prefer native plants, I think that it is impossible to move backwards to before we imported all these exotic plants, and I need to have a garden that is also a show piece for our new home. As a compromise, I will choose plants that the animal kingdom is attracted to and can feed from.

We can enrich remaining lawn by adding small flowering plants – white clover, johnny-jump-ups, and small crocus. Since the advent of broadleaf weed killers in the 40’s, these little plants have been declared weeds. Before that our lawns were much more diverse. Clover fixes nitrogen from the air to make it available in the soil. Grass needs lots of nitrogen. Really, they are a pair of plants that used to, and should, co-exist.

We may also want to consider winter shelter, nesting sites and a water source.

This chart from helped show me what various pollinators are looking for


Now its my turn to brainstorm some plants that will fit the pollinators preferences (above) and still become part of a beautiful garden pleasing to people.

Here is the “short list” (which you may notice is still way too many plants for my garden).  To keep things manageable I can’t go into all the properties (desirable or not) of all the plants in my list, but I’ve tried to hit some of the high points.

Some great references:

Selecting Plant for Pollinators: A Regional Guide for Farmers, Land Managers, and Gardeners

In the Lake Erie LowlandLake Erie Lowlands a NAPPC and Pollinator Partnership Publication

Heather Holmes is an expert in native pollinators. Here is her website.


So how did it all turn out? In our first season we would regularly see one, lonely, bumble bee. I guess he wasn’t so lonely, in the next season we’d see half a dozen, and now we see many bumble bees in the garden. We’ve seen mason bees, sweat bees, leaf cutter bees, butterflys, and many other creatures. I get so much joy just watching these creatures going from flower to flower. Here are some pics.


I believe that supporting wild pollinators is terribley important. I learn more and more every day. Please ask questions, learn, and help spread the word.  This problem needs everyone’s help.