By Renate Tilson

On a warm spring afternoon, there’s nothing nicer than relaxing on the front steps and listening to the birds sing and the bees buzz. It’s especially nice to know that while I’m relaxing, someone else — or rather, something else — is working hard in my garden. Many types of bees, from the fat, furry black-and-golden bumblebees to the iridescent blue mason bee, are flying from flower to flower, pollinating as they go. Our native pollinators are out and about, ensuring bountiful crops for our garden and orchards.

In the natural world, pollination is a very big deal. As insects collect pollen and nectar to feed on, they play a key role in the process, moving from plant to plant, fertilizing as they go. These pollinators are responsible for about 30% of the food we humans eat. The delightful flowers you love to grow for their color, scent, and the delight they bring to the garden were actually designed by Mother Nature to attract pollinators. Blossoms of varied shapes, sizes, and colors each play an important role in attracting just the right winged visitor. Some flowers actually have a built-in eye or a strategically placed landing ramp in their center that’s intended to attract the pollinator zooming by.

Hummingbirds, for example, have no sense of smell but are attracted to trumpet-shaped flowers like honeysuckle or columbine, primarily in shades of reds. These tubular blossoms are perfect for their long beaks. Flowers with a heavy scent guide other pollinators to just the right spot. Foxglove is attractive to several varieties of bees. The joy of gardening includes some experimentation to discover what appeals to local pollinators, rather than always doing what is said to be tried and true. You see — and taste —the work these birds and bees do each year, whether you know it or not.

How can we encourage pollinators to visit our garden? Select plantings that ensure something is flowering from early spring through the end of summer. Try giving pollinators jobs to do by planting grains, onions, melons, and more. You can also leave undisturbed areas in your garden for nesting sites. Observe your plants each season so you can add more of what worked or subtract what didn’t. Most importantly, limit the use of insecticides, especially dusts and powders. Bees’ furry bodies transport powders back to the nest, and such insecticides can kill off entire colonies. Honeybees have been under attack for years from pesticides and parasitic mites. Fortunately, native mason bees are not yet vulnerable to these parasites and are taking over the work that imported honeybees have been doing for years. Homes for them — simple blocks of wood with holes drilled in them — are available at local nurseries and bird shops. \

Butterflies are also important pollinators. For butterflies and bees, moisture, minerals, and nectar are necessities. On a warm spring afternoon, try setting out shallow saucers filled with soil in a sunny area out of the wind. Keep the dirt in the saucers moist and top it with a sprinkling of salt. Watch them come to feed!