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Blanketflower with bee. Photo credit: Geena Hill

Want to help insects? Create flower ‘billboards’ in your landscape, new research says

  • Insect populations are declining. New research from University of Florida gives homeowners new guidance on how to maximize their landscape’s benefit to insects.
  • Grouping flowering plant species together in a mass of color creates a “billboard” for insects that tells them where food and resources are.
  • Plant variety is still important. The researchers recommend that homeowners select five or six flowering plant species known to attract insects and grouping like with like.

A pop of color in the garden is bound to get noticed, and the appeal doesn’t stop at humans, according to new research from the University of Florida.

A study published in the journal “PeerJ” shows that insects are also attracted to landscapes where flowering plants of the same species are grouped together and create big blocks of color.

Insect populations are declining, and homeowners are often asking how they can help insects and specifically pollinators in their yards and gardens. In this study, we found that selecting a handful of flowering plant species known to attract insects, and then grouping like with like, maximizes the number of insects visiting the area,” said Jaret Daniels, senior author on the study.

“An insect isn’t like a kid in a candy store who wants one of every kind of treat, or in this case, flower. They want to find a location with lots of what they really like—a one-stop shop,” said Daniels, curator at the Florida Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity and a professor in the UF/IFAS entomology and nematology department.

“Insects don’t want to travel all over to find flowers because that costs time and energy,” said Elizabeth Braatz, first author on the study, which was completed while she was a master’s student in entomology and nematology.

“We think that a big mass of blooms is like a billboard for insects that says ‘come here for food and resources!’ And like a billboard on the highway, it’s hard to miss a bunch of flowers that are all alike, even more so if they produce a fragrance that’s attractive to insects,” Braatz said.

To attract insects, homeowners are often encouraged to use a variety of plant species in the landscape. This study adds to this recommendation, showing that a balance of variety and abundance can maximize the benefit to insects.

“You still want to have enough variety so that insects that prefer specific flower types are more likely to find something to their liking,” Daniels said. “Based on our findings, we recommend that homeowners select five or six types of flower plants known to attract pollinators and insects and group them by species.”

The study’s authors gained these insights into insect behavior by surveying 34 home landscapes in suburban Gainesville, Florida, for a little under two years. Every three months, the researchers visited each property to count and identify every plant, flower and insect found there. By the end of this painstaking process, the team had counted 774 plant species, 34,972 insects and 485,827 blooms.

Braatz, who graduated from the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in 2020, has been applying what she learned through her online degree program in her job as a Conservation Technician with Disney Conservation based at the Walt Disney World Resort®.

“Before I joined the program, I was already working at Disney. I did my degree online, so I was able to not just work while pursuing my degree, but I could apply what I was learning in real time,” Braatz said. “Now I’m able to conduct butterfly surveys in the park and apply integrated pest management. My degree was individualized to me, and I’m so grateful to the entomology and nematology department.”

This study was supported by a grant from the Florida Wildflower Foundation.

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Top photo: A bee on a blanketflower bloom. Photo courtesy of Geena Hill.