bee pollinator

Native Plants & Pollinators

What is a Pollinator?

A pollinator is an insect or animal that moves pollen from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of a flower (see flower parts here). Pollinators are Keystone species, meaning they are a necessary component of sustaining life on earth for all species. Eighty percent (80%) of flowering plants and most native plants need insects for adequate pollination, so pollinators’ health and well-being are important for the health of any ecosystem.

While Monarch butterflies and Honeybees seem to get the most press, and while they are no doubt an integral part of local ecosystems, they are not the only pollinators in the game. Various species of butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, beetles, bees, and hummingbirds are all pollinators and they need a variety of native plants to provide nectar as food as well as specific native host plants to provide food and shelter for their young.

Native Bees

Native bees are the workhorse pollinators. In a Cornell Cooperative Extension study – they estimate that there is a total of 416 bee species in New York state. The majority (54%) of bees in New York State are digger bees (ground-nesting, solitary bees, such as Andrena, Lasioglossum, Colletes, and Melissodes). Native solitary bees, such as the wood nesting and ground nesting bees live alone and therefore do not pose colony threats that frighten people. While most of the bees in New York State are ground-nesting, several species also make nests in pre-existing cavities, such as twigs, hollow stems, beetle burrows, or in sites above ground. These aboveground, cavity nesters include the mason bees, the wool carder bee and various resin bees.

Bumble Bees

Bumble bees are social insects that form colonies and are excellent pollinators for several reasons.They have a longer tongue so they can harvest pollen from hard-to-reach complex blooms. They are generalists so they visit more species of flowers and plants. They are capable of thermoregulation, or shivering, so they are active in cooler temperatures and operate in lower, wetter temperatures and can take full advantage of pollination from early Spring to late Autumn. They also perform buzz pollination which more efficiently distributes pollen.


The common house fly may be considered a nuisance, but its relatives such as the Flower fly and Bee fly are great pollinators. Most flower flies (Hover flies), of the Syrphid family are generalists – pollinating a wide range of flowers. Their larvae (maggots) are beneficial because they feed on aphids and are often used as a biological control in the farming industry. Bee flies mimic bees in that they stay close to the ground pollinating early Spring flowers such as Spring Beauty. While both species are small and resemble bees, they only have two wings and they do not sting.


Beetles were the very first insect pollinators - with ancient evolutionary origins. Gardeners are often familiar with the beneficial pest-control services provided by ladybugs and predaceous ground beetles, but flower-visiting species like soldier beetles, scarabs, long-horned beetles, sap beetles, and checkered beetles all provide important pollination services that complement the work of other pollinators in the landscape. Beetles such as the Flower beetle, Pollen beetle, Soldier beetle and Firefly are essential pollinators.


The non-fuzzy, social cousins of bees have a bad reputation due to some of their predatory and sometimes aggressive behavior. They are not prolific pollinators due to their smoother body parts. However, in their search of nectar and pollen as food, as well as their use of flowers as hosts for their young, they still carry a few bits of pollen around to a wide variety of plants. While humans may not appreciate the stinger or sometimes aggressive behavior, the insect community appreciates wasps’ predatory and parasitic roles in keeping a balanced insect population in check. Cicada Killer, European hornet, Bald-faced hornet, and Paper wasps all play a part in keeping this balance and are not aggressive to humans unless harassed. Yellowjackets are an exception – but only in Autumn as they search for the last bits of nectar and pollen to feed their queen so that she can live through Winter.


Many moths may be described as “inadvertent” pollinators. Unlike bees, most moths do not eat or gather pollen. However, their hairy bodies collect and spread pollen as they visit evening blooms in search of other moths for mating and host plants to lay eggs. Many plants depend on this nocturnal pollination to maximize seed production. Cecropia moth, Luna moth, Polyphemus moth, are a few species who help with pollination and do some of their best work at night. The Hummingbird Clearwing is their daytime counterpart which does enjoy a sip from nectar plants with its long proboscis.


The flashier group of pollinators, for sure, include species like the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Clouded Sulphur, Spring Azure, Silvery Blue, Red Admiral, Mourning Cloak, Painted Lady. Silvery Checkerspot, White Admiral, Baltimore, Northern Pearly Eye. All these pollinators will visit a garden full of native plants as adults, but some of their host plants (some considered weeds - such as clover and thistle) are likely to be elsewhere. Still providing a variety of native clusters will encourage a variety of these visitors to a pollinator friendly garden.

An important fact to note, that these native pollinators are not only integral to the local ecosystem for their pollination efforts, but they are also an important food source for birds. Insects and birds evolved together and 90% of all songbirds raise their young on caterpillars that feed on native plants.


Hummingbirds are amazing pollinators. Since they drink up to two times their weight of nectar each day, they gather pollen and distribute it as they visit bright colored flowers in gardens and nature. While the nectar provides energy for their high metabolism, they also eat insects for necessary protein. The Ruby Throated Hummingbird is the only species that spends late Spring and Summer in Western New York. Their annual migration depends greatly on successive seasonal blooms of native plants in the eastern United States.


Pollinators Need Native Plants

Plants and animals take a very long time to evolve. During this time, they develop systems to use each other for food, shelter, and propagation. When new plants and animals are introduced into this system, the existing plants and animals cannot easily cope with the change. The system breaks down and the original plants and animals decline and/or die out. In order to save the existing system, we need to plant native plants in our pollinator gardens.

A Native plant has evolved in a given area over a long enough period of time that it has developed essential relationships with its environment and other organisms in that area.

Naturalized plants have evolved somewhere outside the given area but have become successfully established within the given area. Because they originally evolved outside the given area, pollinators within that area may not be able to use them.

A Variety is a plant that has developed as a random mutation in nature. Seeds from these plants will reproduce identically to the parent. It is almost always an acceptable source of food and shelter for native pollinators.

A Hybrid plant is created artificially by crossing 2 species. One or both of these species may be non-native. The breeders are usually trying to create new plants to please humans, not native pollinators.

A Cultivar is a plant selected, bred, and cultivated by humans. Its seeds do not reproduce identically to the parent.

A Host Plant is one that insects rely on as a place to lay their eggs, and as a food source for themselves and their young.

Native plants are important because they provide high quality food and shelter for native pollinators, birds, and other animals. These plants and animals have evolved to depend on each other for survival. Some of these insects and birds have evolved to only use specific native plants (for ex. Monarch butterflies and milkweed plants). The pollinators use the nectar from native plants for food. As they feed, they pollinate the flowers, which allows the plants to develop fruit and seeds. In addition, these insects become food for birds, animals, and their young. The fruit and seeds grow the next generation of plants, and also feed the birds and other small animals. The birds and animals spread the fruit and seeds for the plants, helping them to propagate and spread. Because of this interdependency, we can only accept native plants and their varieties in the certified pollinator garden.

Hybrids and cultivars are often not useful to pollinators. The flowers may not have enough nectar to feed the pollinator. Also, a lot of hybrids have double flowers and other characteristics that make it difficult—if not impossible—for the pollinators to feed.

Last updated April 8, 2024