Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

Bee sipping nectar from a Sienna
Bee sipping nectar from a Sienna. Photo by Donna L. Long

Pollinator Syndromes predict which animals are most like to visit which plant. Pollinators are those animals that give the invaluable service of helping plants reproduce and create seed or fruit that humans and others eat.

There are many pollinators including bats, bees, beetles, birds and butterflies.

The flower type, shape, color, odor, nectar, and structure vary and attract different pollinators according to the pollinators likes and needs. Such characteristics are pollination syndromes.

Pollinator syndromes aren’t always correct but are used as a starting place to predict interactions. Apparently, only one-third of plants can be accurately classified according to pollinator syndromes.

Skipper on summer phlox
Skipper_butterfly (Hesperia comma) on Summer Phlox.

Plants Butterflies Like

Butterflies generally land on a plant to sip nectar. This is why they tend to visit flat blossoms with many nectar sources or small flowers. The flatness of the blossom provides a nice stable landing pad. Butterflies like asters, sedums, milkweeds and coneflowers for those reasons.

Bumble Bee and Grape Hyacinth
Bumble Bee and Grape Hyacinth in my backyard Garden.

Plants Bees Like

Bees like blossoms that give plenty of nectar and lure the bees in with a sweet fragrance. They tend to visit flowers white or blue

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) blossoms attract hummingbirds.
Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) blossoms attract hummingbirds.

Plants Hummingbirds Like

Hummingbirds tend to visit red, tubular shaped flowers. This is why hummingbird feeders that we fill with sugar-water mixtures have red somewhere on the container.

A Pollinator Syndrome Table

Use the chart below to understand why certain plants attract bees, butterflies or other animals.

Pollinator Syndrome Traits
Trait Bats Bees Beetles Birds
Color Dull white, green or purple Bright white, yellow, blue, or UV Dull white or green Scarlet, orange, red or white
Nectar Guides Absent Present Absent Absent
Odor Strong musty; emitted at night Fresh, mild, pleasant None to strongly fruity or fetid None
Nectar Abundant; somewhat hidden Usually present Sometimes present; not hidden Ample; deeply hidden
Pollen Ample Limited; often sticky and scented Ample Modest
Flower Shape Regular; bowl shaped – closed during day Shallow; have landing platform; tubular, c Large bowl-like, Magnolia Large funnel like; cups, strong perch support


Pollinator Syndrome Traits
Trait Butterflies Flies Moths Wind
Color Bright, including red and purple Pale and dull to dark brown or purple; flecked with translucent patches Pale and dull red, purple, pink or white Dull green, brown, or colorless; petals absent or reduced
Nectar Guides Present Absent Absent Absent
Odor Faint but fresh Putrid Strong sweet; emitted at night None
Nectar Ample; deeply hidden Usually absent Ample; deeply hidden None
Pollen Limited Modest in amount Limited Abundant; small, smooth, and not sticky
Flower Shape Narrow tube with spur; wide landing pad Shallow; funnel like or complex and trap-like Regular; tubular without a lip Regular: small and stigmas exerted

The table is courtesy the U.S. Forest Service Celebrating Wildflowers site.
https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/What_is_Pollination/syndromes.shtml. Accessed 18 December 2020.

How Can You Use Pollinator Syndromes to Attract Pollinators?

This information is useful in choosing plants to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators to your garden. Often times a flower species that attracts in it’s simple native form does have the same usefulness in an hybrid form, like Zinnias.

Monarch butterfly on pink zinnia flower in my garden
Monarch butterfly on pink zinnia flower in my garden

When I plant basic flat blossomed Zinnias in my garden, butterflies flock to them. If I plant the “pompom” blossoms with many, many petals, the butterflies don’t visit them nearly as much.


Further information on Pollinators and Pollinator Syndromes

Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat


Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Updated and Expanded


Also See these Posts

Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Pollinators 

Why Are the First Flowers of Spring Often White or Yellow? 

Attracting Pollinators with the Goldenrods

Red Admiral Butterflies and the Flowers that Attract Them 


  1. Donna, this is great, but the row of specific pollinators got shifted one table-cell to the left, so “BATS” is under “TRAITS” and each pollinator is above the wrong column. This should be an easy fix (I hope).

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