bee on lavender

Fighting Climate Change with Bee-utiful Pollinator Gardens

Great Flowers to Plant for Pollinators

Originally published by UC Davis

From daisies and lavender to sunflowers and orange blossoms, flower gardens not only result in beautiful table centerpieces, bragging rights and a joyful hobby. They can also be hugely beneficial to local pollinators and, by close extension, food security and biodiversity.

Why are pollinators important? 

A pollinator is any animal that aids in plant reproduction via bringing pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part. That includes thousands of species of bees, as well as birds, butterflies, bats, flies, wasps, beetles and more. 

“Pollinators are a critical factor for ecosystem functioning and our food systems,” said James Michielini, a Population Biology Ph.D. student studying butterflies. “One in every three bites of food are directly affected by pollinators.” 

Even livestock rely on pollinators for their plant-based animal feed. A large portion of wild plants also depend on pollinators, so biodiversity is heavily dependent on these animals. 

“If all pollinators disappeared, I think that food would become much more classist,” said Elizabeth Crone, a professor with the UC Davis Evolution and Ecology department. “The world would be less diverse outside, and food and flowers would be available to a much narrower segment of the human population.” 

Climate change, habitat loss 

Insects are going through a widespread decline throughout the world, facing many threats such as pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change. 

As climate change acts globally, species may move “poleward,” or closer to colder temperatures, according to Michielini. “And if a species is at the southern edge of its range, it’s pushing up against the limits of their thermal tolerance,” he said.

In Davis, summers temperatures often climb to the 100s, meaning many species are already at their limit and may move away.  

“It’s easy to imagine losing wild bumblebees in Davis,” said Crone. “It’s sad to imagine, but as an ecologist, it’s easy to say that in 50 years, there might not be any in Davis anymore.” 

Elizabeth Crone
Crone’s research is currently centered on pollinator life cycles, as very little is known about pollinating insects aside from their pollination stage. Understanding their full life needs can help inform conservation decisions. (Courtesy Elizabeth Crone)
James Michielini
Michielini studies the effect of urbanization on butterflies to understand if they can be supported adequately by green spaces within cities. (Courtesy James Michielini)

Getting your hands dirty 

Pollinator gardens can be a way to expand this habitat and ease the loss of it. 

“The more habitat you have for a species, the more climate change it can tolerate,” said Crone. “With gardens, I think we can make a big dent in conservation and have a lot more biodiversity persisting in cities.” 

Crone pushes people to move away from lawns or vegetative surfaces and toward plants that provide pollen and nectar. She hopes flower gardening will become a more popular hobby. 

“You could call it pollinator gardening,” said Crone. “But the first step is to just grow some flowers! The second step might be, let’s think about what flowers are best for butterflies and bees. A third step might be to ask, what flowers are native to your area, or what are some host plants that a particular species eats? But the first step is just to plant flowers.” 

With gardens, I think we can make a big dent in conservation and have a lot more biodiversity persisting in cities."

Michielini recommends seeking out different host plants that support specific pollinators or different pollinator life stages. For example, consider the plants that caterpillars rely on, not just the flowers. 

However, he encourages interested people to get involved no matter their experience, and for people not to be scared off by planting the right plant. 

“The more you can do the better,” he said. ”Don’t stop short just because you’re not an expert.” 

Get growing

For people with lawns, Crone says that even letting a few weedy flowers persist before mowing can help pollinators. Avoiding pebble gardens and landscape fabric coverings is also key, as many pollinators use the soil for hibernation and nesting. For those without yards, any kind of window planter works perfectly. 

As for beginner flower gardeners, Crone recommends using baby plants rather than seeds, as seeds are often eaten by birds. When buying whole plants or seedlings, she recommends going to a garden store and observing which plants the bees actually visit, since not all plants produce pollen. 

The UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden also has garden design plans and hosts plant sales. The next one is their clearance sale on May 11 and is the last sale of Spring until Fall. The plants sold are grown by students, staff and volunteers, with all proceeds supporting the growth and care of the gardens and landscapes, public education events, and their environmental leadership program, Learning by Leading

Mara Feldman, student employee at the Arboretum Teaching Nursery, recommends several native flowers that can be planted spring, summer or fall: 


1. Yarrow 

“They look like little clouds,” said Feldman. “They’re so adorable, and I know native bees love them.” 

Yarrow flowers bloom in late winter to early spring, and are fairly hardy. 


Hummingbird sage

2. Hummingbird Sage 

“We have very, very high demand for our salvias,” said Feldman. “Horticulturalists and gardeners, especially in California, are part of the reason that hummingbirds haven’t been threatened or endangered.” 

These charismatic pink, red, or yellow plants are also very fragrant: “They smell good to people, not just pollinators,” she said. 


Image of great valley gumweed. Photo by Miles DaPrato.

3. Gumweed and Wooly Sunflower 

“I see native bees asleep in gumweed, and it’s the sweetest thing in the world,” said Feldman. “One of my favorite things ever.” 

These yellow flowers bloom late summer into fall, so are great resources for pollinators in hotter seasons when many other flowers



4. Penstemons 

“Especially in spring, just getting to see everything bloom makes you happy,” said Feldman. 

Varieties native to Davis include foothill penstemon and lemon’s penstemon. 


"Pollinators deserve to be here in their own right,” said Feldman. “They deserve all we can give them.”

Malia Reiss is a science news intern with UC Davis Strategic Communications. She studies environmental science and management at UC Davis.

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