Monarch butterflies are classic Illinois pollinators. Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash.

May 1, 2024

The Illinois Pollinators Website is the Bee’s Knees

Did you have a “bug house” or “critter cage” when you were a child? Mine was always filled with gently collected ladybugs or fireflies, or sometimes, if I was lucky, with a praying mantis, cricket, cicada or butterfly. I learned early on that bees could sting and ants might bite, but the other insects that I captured seemed content enough to let me watch them for a few minutes, or hours, before I returned them to our backyard. Those early experiences sparked my fascination with insects and set me on my current path to do what I can to support insect populations and encourage others to do likewise.

A screenshot of the Illinois Pollinators website homepage.
The Illinois Pollinators website is available at: Image from University of Illinois Extension.

Which is why I was delighted to find the Illinois Pollinators website developed by University of Illinois Extension. The website is beautifully designed and provides a wealth of information about pollinators and starting your own pollinator garden. Divided into six main sections, you will want to spend time exploring this eye-catching and thought-provoking resource. Here’s a taste of what you can expect to find.

What are Pollinators?

Pollination is the vital process by which flowers are fertilized to produce fruits and seeds. Bees and butterflies immediately come to mind when we think about pollinators, but this site doesn’t stop at the basics. On the What are Pollinators? page the authors dive into the pollinator “headliners”: bees, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles and wasps. That is important because different pollinators have evolved to be attracted to particular flower features. Those features, such as flower type, shape, structure, color, odor and nectar, vary by the type of pollinator that visits them and are referred to as pollinator syndromes. The site goes into more detail about pollinator syndromes and provides a chart that showcases what flower traits are likely to attract certain types of insects. For example, bright red or purple flowers with plenty of nectar are favorites of butterflies, while flies tend to be attracted to pale flowers or dark brown or purple flowers, especially ones that give off a putrid scent.


A small bee (Andrena ergeniae) collects pollen from a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) flower.
A bee (Andrena ergeniae) collects pollen from a spring beauty flower (Claytonia virginica). Photo by Judy Gallagher.

While honeybees get a lot of attention for pollinating many of our favorite foods and making deliciously sweet honey, they are not native to the United States. Illinois is home to approximately 500 species of native bees which are all important pollinators. Obviously, the website cannot cover every species, but it does provide a nice overview of 11 types of bees including sweat bees, mason bees, cellophane bees and squash bees. If you check out the bee page, you’ll be rewarded with interesting facts such as: 90 percent of Illinois’ native bees are solitary, there are short-tongued and long-tongued bees, and some bees are specialists, like the spring beauty mining bee (Andrena erigeniae) which only collects pollen from the dainty, ephemeral flowers called spring beauties (Claytonia virginica and Claytonia caroliniana).


People don’t often think of flies as pollinators, but the website highlights that flies are extremely important pollinators, second only to bees. In addition to pollinating early season flowering plants such as skunk cabbage, flies also are important pollinators of pawpaws, onions, cauliflowers, carrots and strawberries. Carrion flies visit putrid-smelling flowers thinking they are carrion on which they can lay their eggs. Once they realize the flower has fooled them, they fly off, but not before pollinating the flower. Flower flies have a more straightforward relationship with the flowers they pollinate. These flies feed on pollen and nectar and often mimic bees in their appearance. The website covers several fly families including hoverflies, bee flies, house flies and tachinid flies.


Beetles were some of the first insect pollinators. Because they are such a diverse group, they pollinate a wide range of plants including magnolias, tulip trees, daisies and goldenrods. Fun fact: Beetles often feed on flower petals, and so many beetle-pollinated plants evolved to have thick, leathery petals.

Importance of Pollinators

The importance of insect pollinators, and other insects, cannot be overstated. Globally, declines in insect populations have made news headlines and are the subject of several recent books. One that I am currently reading is The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World by Oliver Milman. Both the book and the Illinois Pollinators website make it clear that the decline of pollinators is driven by a combination of factors, including pesticide exposure, habitat destruction, pest pressure, disease, pressure from invasive species and climate change. The website also goes on to summarize the impacts of pollinators on food supplies and ecosystems. Just when you are feeling pretty low about the current state of things, the website does something refreshing—it provides ideas for What You Can Do for Pollinators, through 16 actions that people can take to help insects survive and thrive.

Pollinator-Friendly Plants

There is a lot of information out there that will tell you to plant native plants or to plant the “right plant in the right place” without really giving you the details you need to make your pollinator garden successful. The Illinois Pollinators website removes the costly, time-consuming guess work. With the Pollinator Plant Selector Tool you can pick from a selection of options that will give you examples of plants that will grow well under specific conditions such as areas with dry soil and full sun, or a shady, wet spot. Want to make sure you have something in bloom spring through fall? This tool can help with that as well. There are photos as well as common and scientific names to help you decide which plants to add. Potential options include very short plants all the way to large trees (>60 feet). Be forewarned, you could easily loose an afternoon here planning future garden beds…I did.

Pollinator Habitat Design

If planning your own pollinator patch feels a little more overwhelming than fun, Extension provides pre-planned garden designs. How easy is that? You’ll find the plans on the Pollinator Habitat Design page which is also packed with useful information about designing and building a pollinator garden. Native plants vs. non-native plants. Mulch vs. bare ground. Woodchips vs. cardboard. The site covers everything you’ll need to get started.

Community Science and Education

We need to act now if we want to reverse the decline of insects. Planting for pollinators and other insects is a great first step. To increase your fun and make a bigger impact, think about getting involved with Community Science and Education efforts. Scientists need our help monitoring insect populations. You could get more involved by joining a community science community such as Bee Spotter, Monarch Watch, Firefly Watch or other great organizations.

Learning about pollinators isn’t just fun for grownups. Get the children you know involved! The website has loads of activities and lessons available. Build a Mason Bee House. Make a Butterfly Puddle. Design a Butterfly. Check out the full range of family-friendly activities on the site.

Pollinator Research

There is still a lot we do not know about pollinators and how they interact with their ecosystems. To help fill in these knowledge gaps, there is a lot of research happening at the University of Illinois at the Illinois Natural History Survey, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and in the Pollinator Labs in the Department of Entomology. Researchers there are working on issues such as:

• Discovering how insects induce plants to make toxic chemicals.
• Exploring ways that honeybees use plant phytochemicals to protect themselves from toxic fungicides.
• Using genomics to understand how honeybee behavior is regulated.
• Studying ecological topics that impact pollinator conservation and habitat restoration.
• Determining how environmental stressors like pesticide and disease impact bees as well as honeybee competition with native bees.

The Bee’s Knees

The decisions we make now about how to manage our landscapes will determine what species of insect pollinators survive in the future. When planning my own pollinator garden there were so many factors to consider. Bloom time and color, design considerations, propagation, growth habit, commercial availability—the Illinois Pollinator website provides all this information and more. It makes it easy to select plants that will thrive in your local conditions and attract and support insect biodiversity. I have a hunch that if you check out the Illinois Pollinators website that you’ll also think it is the bee’s knees.

There are also other great resources out there for those of us looking to add native plant diversity to our yards. Some of my favorite sources include the CICADA website which provides information about adding native plants, battling invasive plants and supporting pollinators. Another wealth of information is the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Pollinator Resources page. It covers pollinator garden design, links to the Mason State Tree Nursery and other sources for plants, tips on planting seed, a ton of educational resources about bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and links to other organizations that are working to protect pollinators.

So, dig into some of these online resources and then get digging in your yard. By adding pollinator patches now, we’ll improve the odds that future generations of children will have the joy of watching insect pollinators at work.

Laura Kammin is a Natural Resources Specialist with the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center. She formerly held positions at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Rivers Network and the Illinois Natural History Survey. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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