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Water, food and shelter are three key ingredients for attracting and – more importantly – helping sustain insect pollinators.

Let’s start with water. Insects need access to water. A bird bath or pet water dish is a start. But a bird bath is likely to have birds, right? Birds eat insects. Also, water in bird baths and pet dishes is deep, from an insect’s perspective, and there is potential for drowning. A small pond works if there is close-in vegetation for the insects to hang onto. Mud puddles aren’t just for little boys and girls; they also attract bees and butterflies.

One option for providing water is to fill a small dish (like a plant saucer) with water and add rocks or shells so insects have something to stand on. Be sure to change water frequently to discourage mosquito breeding.

For food sources, a variety of host plants, including grasses and trees, is best. If space is limited, pick a few pollinator attractors and group together. Purple, blue and yellow flowers generally attract bees. Butterflies are especially attracted to red, orange and yellow. Dull white, green, purple and brown flowers typically are pollinated by flies, beetles and moths.

The type of flower also plays a role in attracting different insect pollinators. Tubular-shaped flowers are great for butterflies, moths and some bees. Umbels – flat-topped clusters of tiny funnel-shaped flowers – have a wider landing area and are good for bees, flies, wasps, beetles, small butterflies and moths. A ray-shaped flower is accessible to a wide variety of insects including beetles, bees and flies; it also provides a resting place for butterflies and moths.

Most bees and butterflies find coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), blackeyed Susans (Rudbeckia species), phlox (Phlox paniculata), sedum and sunflowers (Helianthus species) appealing. Of course, monarch butterflies are attracted to butterfly milkweed, which is a good reminder that foliage is important, too, for larvae (caterpillars).

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Clumping together plants that flower at different times of the year will ensure food availability throughout the season. Avoid insecticides, or you will attract pollinators to their death.

Shelter for pollinators is created when plants are layered by height: canopy (trees), then lower canopy (understory trees and shrubs), grasses, then herbaceous plants (annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs).

Neatniks take notice: an untidy garden is ideal for pollinators. Bees often nest in undisturbed shrubs or grass. A brush pile can be a good habitat for bumble bees (if it is in a sheltered location where rain doesn’t drip through the pile). A stack of firewood – away from the house and uncovered – can provide a bee nesting site.

The more natural, and native, the better. Concerned about how others may perceive an unkempt garden? Put up a sign that says, “Pollinator Garden.” Then watch and enjoy the pollinators that take up residence.

Mari Lane Gewecke is a Master Gardener volunteer, affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus program, and a self-employed consultant.

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