When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
Pollinators are in decline. There are many reasons for the decrease in their numbers, but one of the most significant is habitat loss. Other causes include the introduction of non-native plant species, pesticide use, pollution, diseases, and climate change.
In California, pollinators include bees, wasps, beetles, moths, butterflies, other insects, and hummingbirds. They are necessary for pollinating about 75 percent of food crops, but they also pollinate nearly 90 percent of all flowering plants. Without them, most flowering plants could disappear, to the detriment of entire ecosystems.
The good news is that as gardeners we can create habitat for pollinators, thus helping to restore our local ecosystems and our planet’s health. Gardeners can help make “pollinator pathways,” pesticide-free corridors of native plants that provide nutrition and habitat for pollinating insects and birds. This means treating gardens as ecosystems where living things are interconnected.
In order to provide a place for pollinators to thrive, you’ll need to provide them with a few essentials in your garden:
- Food, such as nectar and pollen from plants
- Habitat to raise their young, find shelter from bad weather, and hide from predators, as well as sunny spots undisturbed by pets
Because native pollinators evolved with the native plants in their shared habitat, it is recommended that at least 70 percent of your garden be planted with locally native plants. Locally native plants are adapted to the local soil and climate conditions and are generally low maintenance.
Many of the same plants that support pollinators will also support other beneficial insects, which can help control pest insects in your garden as well as provide pollination services for your food crops.
The following gardening practices will help provide year round habitat for pollinators:
- Plant for year-round bloom—for example, manzanita species are important for winter-active pollinators because they bloom in December and January when very few other plants are blooming.
- Include a variety of flower types, sizes, and colors.
- Mass plants together as much as possible.
- Plant in sunny, open areas.
- Learn about and include the larval host plants for the butterflies and moths in your garden.
- Reduce or remove lawn, which is considered a “desert” in terms of ecosystem services for insects.
- Avoid pesticides, even the “eco-friendly” ones, so soil, air, and water are free from poisons.
Even though most people think of European honey bees (which are not native to the United States and were brought here by early settlers) as the primary pollinators for agriculture, native bees are also important and can be efficient pollinators of many crops. There are approximately 4,000 native bee species in the United States and 1,600 native bee species in California. About 70 percent of native bee species in the U.S. nest underground. They are non-aggressive and don’t travel far: most have maximum foraging ranges between 500 feet and a half mile.
The California Native Plant Society Calscape website is a treasure trove of information about native plants. You can look up locally native plants in your area by typing in your zip code, and you can also filter (using the Advanced Search feature) for plants that attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. When I looked up plants in my zip code (on the Bay side of Contra Costa County) and filtered for bee, butterfly, and hummingbird gardens as well as butterfly host plants, Calscape returned hundreds of results, many of them native to the East Bay.
Here’s a sampling of locally native plants for pollinators in various parts of the East Bay. Many of these plants are available at our CNPS East Bay Chapter’s nonprofit Native Here Nursery:
- Black sage (Salvia mellifera)
- Buckwheat (Eriogonum species) – many species, including East Bay natives California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and naked buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)
- California fuschia (Epilobium canum)
- California coffeeberry (Frangula californica)
- California goldenrod (Solidago velutina ssp. californica)
- California wild rose (Rosa californica)
- Ceanothus (Ceanothus species) – many species, including East Bay native blueblossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), plus nursery cultivars
- Coastal gumweed (Grindelia stricta)
- Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis)
- Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)
- Golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum)
- Lupine (Lupinus species) – many species, both annual and perennial, including East Bay native silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons)
- Manzanita (Arctostaphylos species) – an important genus providing nectar in the winter when not much else is blooming, with many species, including East Bay natives common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) and woolyleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos tomentosa)
- Phacelia (Phacelia species) – many species, including East Bay natives lacy phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) and Bolander’s phacelia (Phacelia bolanderi)
- Red and pink flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum and Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum) – winter-blooming East Bay native shrubs providing nectar for pollinators
- Sticky cinquefoil (Drymocallis glandulosa)
- Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
- Woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum var. achilleoides)
Even if you don’t turn your garden into a pollinator magnet overnight, slowly increasing the number of pollinator plants over time will start to create a healthy ecosystem. Good luck getting started!
Online resources about gardening for pollinators with native plants
- Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour, with information about previous years’ gardens as well as the upcoming 2023 tours on April 15 and 16 (virtual) and May 6 and 7 (in person)
- California Native Plants, from the website of the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County
- Calscape, a database of native plant information from the California Native Plant Society, including nurseries that carry each plant
- Creating a Pollinator Habitat webinar, July 19, 2022, hosted by the Contra Costa County Library system and presented by Annette Abbott of the UC Master Gardener Program of Contra Costa County
- Gardening and Horticulture, on the statewide CNPS website
- Homegrown National Park, Doug Tallamy’s call to action to regenerate biodiversity and ecosystem function by planting native plants
- Pollinator Conservation Resources: California, from the Xerces Society
- Protect & Encourage Wildlife, from the website of the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County
- UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab, with information about many aspects of gardening for native bees in the Gardening menu selections
Books about native plant gardening and pollinators
- Bauer, Nancy, The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals, 2012.
- Bornstein, Carol, David Fross, Bart O’Brien, California Native Plants for the Garden, 2005.
- Frankie, Gordon, Robbin W. Thorp, Rollin Coville, Barbara Ertter, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists, 2014.
- Keator, Glenn, Complete Garden Guide to the Native Perennials of California, 1990.
- Keator, Glenn, Complete Garden Guide to the Native Shrubs of California, 1994.
- Keator, Glen, Alrie Middlebrook, Phyllis M. Faber, Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens, 2007.
- Lowry, Judith Larner, Gardening with a Wild Heart, 1999.
- Schmidt, Marjorie G., Growing California Native Plants, 1980.
- Schmidt, Marjorie G., Katherine L. Greenberg, Growing California Native Plants, Second Edition, 2012.
- Smith, M. Nevin, Native Treasures: Gardening with the Native Plants of California, 2006.
- Tallamy, Douglas W., Bringing Nature Home, 2009.
- Tallamy, Douglas W., Nature’s Best Hope, 2020.
—Robin Mitchell, Recording Secretary, CNPS East Bay Chapter
Many thanks to TJ Gehling for making his beautiful photos available under Creative Commons licenses. —ed.