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Protect Pollinators at Home: Alternatives to Herbicides

By Aaron Anderson on 22. February 2024
Aaron Anderson

If you’re concerned with pollinator conservation at home, you’ve likely taken steps to eliminate insecticide use in your yard. But many gardeners may be surprised to learn that herbicides (chemicals designed to kill plants) can also pose a risk to pollinators and other invertebrates. Luckily, there are a number of solutions that home gardeners can use to manage yards and gardens without herbicides.


Monarch caterpillar eating milkweed leaves
Caterpillars are especially vulnerable to herbicide exposure because they feed on the leaves of plants. (Photo: Candace Fallon/Xerces Society.) 


How herbicides hurt pollinators

We should note that there has been relatively little research investigating the direct impacts of herbicides on pollinators, so there is a lot we don’t know! This is one of the reasons we recommend caution, especially when there are other solutions to weed and pest problems at home.


Skipper butterfly drinking nectar from wavyleaf thistle flower
Native plants that people sometimes consider weeds are often essential food sources for wildlife. (Photo: Katie Lamke/Xerces Society.) 


Safe alternatives to herbicides

Luckily there are a variety of strategies you can use to ensure you don’t need herbicides to manage weeds at home. 

  • Right plant, right place. Create a resilient yard by selecting appropriate plants for your site and learning your soil properties so your garden plants can thrive. Check your soil pH; different plants have different pH needs, so be aware when choosing soil amendments and garden plants. Irrigate your garden with drip hoses so that only desired plants are watered and entire beds aren’t saturated. This will create conditions that will promote the growth of desired plants and help them outcompete weeds.
  • Hand weed while plants are still small. The smaller size of home gardens makes weeding a practical method. What’s more, this is the perfect time of year to get on top of weed control when the plants are small and the soil is moist! A variety of ergonomic tools are available that make hand weeding much easier, like hoes and claw weeders. Use dense plantings to outcompete weeds after you remove them, and consider mulch for weed suppression in garden beds.
  • View your yard as habitat and embrace ecological beauty. Allow some level of “wildness”, including some flowering weeds, in all or parts of your yard. This will provide protected habitat for all sorts of beneficial invertebrates, including pollinators.


Hori hori gardening tool removing a plant from the ground
Hand weeding in the late winter and early spring can make the task easier. The plants are smaller and have shallow roots, the soil is moist, and plants are removed before they produce seeds. (Photo: Aaron Anderson.) 


Learn more

Our new Xerces fact sheet, Protecting Pollinators from Herbicides: Rethinking Weed Management at Home shares additional solutions, as well as more about the impacts herbicides can have on pollinators.


Visualization of how small. nonlethal effects can build up in a population over time and eventually reduce the overall health or abundance of an insect population
Many of the risks that herbicides pose to bees are subtle, like altered behavior, disrupted gut microbiomes, weakened immune function, slower growth, reduced reproduction, and decreased survival rates. When those effects are multiplied across many bees, they can scale up and impact the health and abundance of the larger population. (Design: Emily May.) 


Aaron Anderson works with the public and Xerces staff to reduce pesticide use in residential landscapes, including promoting alternative pest control measures and pollinator-friendly gardening practices. Prior to joining Xerces in 2022, he researched pollinator conservation in urban landscapes, restored habitat for several endangered butterfly species, and worked in insect biocontrol. In 2021 he was an AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he reported science and business stories.

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