Perhaps just in time, millions of gardeners have created pollinator gardens to help conserve the world’s dwindling supply of insects. With wild bees in acute distress, emphasis is placed on native trees, shrubs and perennials that provide essential food and habitat, which are in short supply in most urban and suburban landscapes.
This is great, but edible plants need to be brought into the discussion, too. From berry-bearing shrubs to late-season squash, fruits, vegetables and herbs can be hugely successful plants in gardens planned with pollinators in mind. By fine-tuning your plant choices, you can grow good things to eat and please pollinators at the same time. Here are some of the best edibles for pollinator gardens.
Top Fruits for Pollinators
In the insect world, one of the first big events of the year is the blooming of fruit trees and berry bushes, which appeal to a long list of beneficial insects. Among tree fruits, apples are pollinator favorites in temperate climates, followed closely by apricots and plums. When researchers surveyed apple pollinators in orchards in Kent, England, they saw more than 25 different species of bee and hoverfly on flowers. In a similar study in New York, researchers counted 53 species of bees on apples. In both studies, excluding the wild pollinators resulted in smaller apples, and fewer of them.
Because they are so long-lived, apple trees can develop a local following of wild pollinators that reappear year after year. The same can be said for early-blooming small fruits including blueberries, currants, gooseberries, blackberries and strawberries. The constancy of fruits that bloom year after year does not go unnoticed by insects in need of food and habitat. Pollinators that worked your plum trees or raspberry patch this year are not likely to move far from a known food supply.
Best Vegetables for Pollinators
Most beans and peas offer small pollen rewards to bumblebees willing to buzz them just the right way, but fava beans and runner beans are especially generous to bees and are worthy edibles for pollinator gardens. Fava beans help support a wide range of small bees that are active in cool weather, while runner beans are bumblebee favorites.
Tomato blossoms are self-fertile so they don’t require insects to set fruit, but several studies have shown that tomato blossoms visited by insects produce fruits that are bigger, more uniform and better colored than self or wind-pollinated flowers. Tomatoes require buzz pollination (sonication) to release their pollen, so small bumblebees are their primary pollinators.
Tomatoes may attract a half-dozen bee species, but other edibles including sunflowers and watermelon are of interest to a much wider range of wild pollinators. Sunflowers are a top edible for pollinator gardens because they support such a wide diversity of bees, wasps, flies and butterflies – often 30 species or more, depending on climate.
Vegetable gardeners have a unique opportunity to host specialist bees that depend on certain crops. For example, in North America, small squash bees emerge from their underground holes in summer and work big squash blossoms like mad for a few weeks, and then go back underground until the following year. Blueberries and cranberries host specialist bees, too.
The flowers of pumpkins, winter squash, melons and gourds attract numerous bees, large and small, because the flowers are easy to access and the plants bloom at a time of year when pollen is in short supply. Small-fruited pumpkins and ornamental gourds make great edibles for pollinator gardens because they are such heavy bloomers.
You will need to observe your kitchen herbs to see which ones attract the most attention from local pollinators, which are apt to be tiny yet numerous on blooming herbs. Oregano and marjoram often are big hits among wild bees and other beneficials, and mint in full bloom buzzes with activity. Marginally hardy herbs like rosemary make great edibles for pollinator gardens, too, assuming they pull through winter. When it comes the buzz-worthiness of herbs, the gardener is always the best judge.