Sex in the Garden


Flowers for pollination poster available at
Flowers for pollination poster available at

Pollination is all about plant sex. Yes, there is sex in the garden, be it plant sex, bee sex, bat sex, bird sex, and yes, sometimes human sex. The transfer of sticky powder (pollen) from the male stamen to the female stigma, has developed over thousands of years by plants rooted to the ground. Plants are unique in that they need this transfer done by other agents, since they are stationary and have developed some ingenious strategies to get this essential service done.

Plants are chemical factories, attracting pollinators with color combinations and chemically produced scents. When animals such as bees, butterflies, moths, flies, and hummingbirds pollinate plants, it is accidental. They are not trying to pollinate the plant. Usually they visit the plant to obtain food, the sticky pollen or a sweet nectar made at the base of the petals. When feeding, the animals or insects, accidentally rub against the stamens and cover themselves with pollen, kind of like a tar baby rolling in feathers. When the pollinators move to another flower to feed, some of the pollen rubs onto this new plant’s stigma.  Most plants depend on animals to do this, or sometimes wind for their reproduction and ultimately their survival. 045 I am starting a series of posts on attracting native pollinators, since as a beekeeper for over 15 years, I am very concerned with the decline of the social honey bee, and want to learn more about the solitary mason bee and other solitary native bees, as well as the vast array of other pollinators – bats, butterflies, beetles, flies, voles, mice, small mammals, and various insects. I will be posting on:

  • How to ensure pollination in your garden
  • How to identify the flower-visiting insects in your area
  • Which host plants and nesting sites are best for bees and butterflies, and all pollinators
  • Ways to  create a beautiful, diverse, and pollinator friendly landscape
Honey bees pollinating butterfly weed
Honey bees pollinating butterfly weed

Why are Pollinators Important?

Why should we care? Here are just a few reasons why we should be concerned, even if you aren’t a gardener.

Butterfly on coneflower
Butterfly on coneflower
  1. Pollinators play a critical role in the production of many fruits, vegetables, and forage crops, more than 1/3 of the farmed products in the US.  Native bees, including the blue orchard bee and numerous bumble bees and other native bees, are significant pollinators, and on a bee-per-bee basis are more effective than honey bees.
  2. Pollinators are essential to plant reproduction,yes- plant sex!

    Honeybee pollinating a hellebore
    Honeybee pollinating a hellebore
  3. Pollinators support plant communities that in turn stabilize the soil, preventing erosion, and keep our waterways clean.
  4. Mammals depend on insect-pollinated plants for fruits and seeds to survive.
  5. Pollinating insects are food for birds, lizards, and spiders, which is part of the overall food web. The food web which you probably heard about in basic biology is very important! and also key to our survival at the top of the food chain.
Giant bee made out of dried flowers
Giant bee made out of dried flowers

Pollinators are a keystone species group which means that the survival of many of other species depends on them. It is like the “falling domino” effect. Remove one piece and the entire system collapses. In China, in one of the largest pear producing regions in the world, farmers perch on ladders in trees to pollinate the blossoms by hand, because native species have disappeared. Honey beekeepers refuse to bring in their hives because of the prevalence of pesticides in the fields, and the Chinese have adjusted to this, but at what cost? I don’t see people in the U.S. getting up in trees to hand pollinate each and every blossom.

Fertile Honeybee Queen ready to be released to start laying eggs
Fertile Honeybee Queen ready to be released to start laying eggs

From Wikipedia, ” Pears grown in Hanyuan County, of China have been hand-pollinated since regional bees were wiped out by pesticides in the 1980s (though the pears were pollinated by hand, in order to produce better fruit, even before the bees were destroyed). If humans were to replace bees as pollinators in the United States, the annual cost is estimated at $90,000,000,000.”

Bumblebee pollinating flower from Wikipedia
Bumblebee pollinating flower from Wikipedia

Reasons for Decline

There are four reasons that the native populations are declining and disappearing;

  • Loss of habitat
  • Degradation of remaining habitat
  • Pesticide poisoning
  • Spread of disease and parasites

What Can We Do?

Bee pollinating sunflower
Bumblebee pollinating sunflower

To reverse this disastrous trend, there are many practical things that we can do. By learning about the native life cycles and understanding how our actions can impact their environment, I hope that we can stem the tide before it is too late.

pol·li·na·tion [pol-uhney-shuhn]

pollinator is the biotic agent (vector) that moves pollen from the male anthers of a flower to the female stigma of a flower to accomplish fertilization or syngamy“. Pollinators can refer to bees, both solitary and social, flies, butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, moths, lizards, monkeys, lemurs, possums, rodents, beetles, ants, and other birds. Humans also can pollinate, as I mentioned they do in China. To increase populations of these helpful pollinators, we must provide  some basic materials for their survival.
Pollinating honey bee

Action Plan

These steps are easy for anyone who has a yard or just a balcony.

  1. Mud/Water – Provide some water with a bird bath, or just create a damp spot in your garden. Make a bee mud puddle. An easy way to do this is to take a one gallon plastic milk jug and put a pin hole in the bottom.  Put the jug on the ground the water leaks out slowly and creates a mini mud puddle. Wood ash added to mud or sand and will sometimes attract puddling male butterflies.
  2. Give up the mulch! Keep some bare dirt exposed. Most native ground-nesting bees, need patches of bare ground to nest. Some hide their nest entrances under leaves. Sand piles and ditch banks are also important as potential nest sites for bees.
  3. Leave some dead wood in your backyard. Dead wood provides shelter and nesting space for many beneficial insects, including leaf cutter bees and mason bees.  Entire trees or even branches will suit this purpose.  Birds will also appreciate these. These are important for wintering over larvae.
  4. Provide artificial nesting sites for native bees.  Something as simple as a length of untreated 4×4 or 2×8 drilled with holes for nest tunnels.  Artificial nesting habitats can also be made with bundles of reeds and bamboo bound together.  Below is an example of a native bee habitat that I made.

    My completed bee house
  5. Put out a small plate of freshly cut pieces of banana, oranges, apples and other fruit.  If you can, place this in the shade so it does not dry out and keep it fresh.
  6. Reduce or eliminate fertilizer and pesticide use. This is probably the most important thing that you as a homeowner can do that will have lasting impact.
  7. Learn how to identify beneficial insects that eat bugs and other pests you don’t want in the garden.  This will help you to find a balanced population of spiders, ladybugs, bees, and other beneficial insects to fight against pests in your yard. For an excellent post on attracting beneficial insects, go to Attracting Beneficial Insects.
  8. Plant nectar and pollen rich flowers in blocks of at least 4′ x 4 ‘. Providing a visible target for pollinators, is much more efficient because it takes greater energy to find single plants to pollinate. Look for my next post on the best plants to add to your garden.
pollination habitat
Hand Made house from Wildbienen, a German web site about wild bees at

 Next up- Planting the right kind of plants, and providing custom made housing for pollinators. 

Bee Swarm, the natural reproduction of a honey bee hive
Bee Swarm, the natural reproduction of a honey bee hive

9 Replies to “Sex in the Garden”

  1. I’m always on the lookout for ways to support pollinator populations, but really don’t have a lot of space to work with – so I really appreciate the practical hints for those of us who have balconies or very small yards. 4’x4′ block of pollen rich flowers – I can manage that, even just using containers on the deck.

  2. This topic has caught my attention this year. I am keeping all of my native milkweed (common milkweed) and bought swamp milkweed, purple milkweed, and butterfly weed to add to the collection. I watch and notice which flowers the pollinators like. I was stunned to see my fragrant peonies (not native in New England; I guess that’s the reason) ignored by all the butterflies and bees. The native flowering plants are important to restore, even as we try to eradicate the invasive species. I’m astonished at how little many gardeners seem to know about this – myself included until recently – it seems right up our alley! Keep up the good work – we must spread the word.

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