Providing Habitat for Bumblebees: Gardening with A Big Buzz

Bees: The Cornerstone of Pollination

Bees are a cornerstone of nature's system for the pollination and reproduction of flowering plants. Without bees, many of the planet's important web-of-life food plants that feed animals and humans would not exist. Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of the honeybee and Colony Collapse Disorder. But there is also an urgent need to protect our bumblebees. Providing habitat-friendly gardens and landscapes are the most important thing gardeners can do to make a meaningful difference in helping to conserve and protect our native bumblebees and wild bee populations. By understanding their needs and planting to support them with food, we can help to undo what mankind has been inflicting on our wonderful insect friends.

Happy Faces and Bumblebees

For me, no other insect so readily brings a smile to my face than to watch a busy bumblebee buzzing around the garden. These slow flying, big fuzzy insects are a delight to have around us. These are the largest of our native bees and in many ways some of our most threatened. So it is very important that we educate ourselves, our neighbors and our communities' farmers and ranchers about how to work with the bumblebee to protect them from our activities like pesticide use, overgrazing and the destruction of nature areas resulting in the fragmentation of their habitats.

Important Pollinators

Bumblebees are very important pollinators of both wild native plants and agricultural crops. Because bumblebees have the ability to fly in cooler temperatures and when it is darker, they will be pollinating flowers earlier and later in the growing season and during the lower light of dawn and dusk. This ability is unique to bumblebees, as they are one of the few insects that are able to generate body heat (thermoregulation) and fly when it's cold, allowing them to live in more northern climates and at higher elevations.

What's for Dinner?

Bumblebees are generalists when it comes to choosing the flowers they pollinate while foraging for nectar and pollen. In general, they have a preference for blue, purple, pink, and yellow flowers and are actually color-blind to red (unless the red flowers have ultraviolet markers they can see).

Bumblebees, more so than other native bees and honeybees, prefer perennial plants as opposed to annuals, as perennials tend to have larger quantities of nectar. (See the list at the end of this article to learn the genera of perennial and woody plants that they prefer.)

Bumblebees are Social Creatures

Unlike most native bees, which are solitary, bumblebees are social insects that live in colonies. Unlike honeybee hives however, these colonies are much smaller and vary in numbers from 50 to 500 members. And they also differ significantly from honeybees in the lifespan of these colonies. Honeybees are perennial, with hives surviving the winter on stored honey and pollen. Bumblebees, however, are annual with the individual bees living one season, with only the queen bumblebee surviving through the winter. At the start of spring, she emerges from hibernation to begin foraging and looking for a suitable nesting site where she lays her eggs and re-establishes the colony.

Where's Home?

Providing undisturbed places for queen bumblebees to nest is a very important part of bumblebee stewardship. While there is much yet to be learned about the nesting requirements of different bumblebee species, we know that they can utilize both natural and man-made structures. Buildings, rock walls, abandoned underground burrows, under rock piles, cavities in dead trees, abandoned bird nests and bird nesting boxes are all utilized by the queen to establish and shelter her colony. This is why near-surface and subsurface disturbance of the ground by digging, tilling and plowing can be disastrous for bumblebees (and other native bees that also burrow in bare ground).

Don't Forget the Ornamental Grass

It is also known that native bunch grasses, such as Prairie Switchgrass (Panicum), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum), Dropseed Grass (Sporobolus), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium), Big Bluestem (Andropogon), and Grama Grass (Bouteloua) provide nesting sites and protection for the queen to overwinter. (Remember how I'm always insisting that we leave our perennial plants and grasses standing over the winter?)

Go Natural and Organic

One of the biggest threats to bumblebees (and all bees) are the use of chemical pesticides, especially systemic neonicotinoids, widely sold at the "big box" stores and uninformed nurseries and garden centers. But often overlooked, is the use of agricultural chemicals on the soil such as diazinon (to "control" ground dwelling insects and their grubs), pre-emergent herbicides and fungicides. Unfortunately, these toxic chemicals are most commonly associated with lawn care and the lawn care industry. And these toxic compounds are being applied by the ton to the millions of acres of land covered by lawns. For so many reasons, if you have a lawn, care for it organically! (If you do need to protect your lawn from beetle grubs, the primary target of diazinon, use milky spore, a natural grub control. For above ground insects, diatomaceous earth is a safe, natural alternative control.)

  1. Phenomenal Lavender Plant,  Lavandula intermedia Phenomenal field

    Phenomenal French Hybrid Lavender (Lavandula intermedia 'Phenomenal' PP24193) is a French hybrid lavender notable for its outstanding cold hardiness and tolerance to heat and high hu...

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    Phenomenal Lavender Phenomenal Lavender Lavandula intermedia Phenomenal PP#24,193
    As low as $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Phenomenal French Hybrid Lavender (Lavandula intermedia 'Phenomenal' PP24193) is a French hybrid lavender notable for its outstanding cold hardiness and tolerance to heat and high humidity. The plants grow into a beautiful mounded shape, with purple flowers on tall stems in mid-summer.
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  2. Blue and Purple Lavandula intermedia Gros Bleu, Lavandula intermedia Gros Bleu, Gros Bleu French hybrid Lavender

    Gros Bleu is a hybrid French Lavender that is considered to be the very best of all the French hybrids. More compact than 'Grosso' but with equally darkly colored flowers, the scent ...

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    Gros Bleu French Lavender Gros Bleu French hybrid Lavender Lavandula intermedia Gros Bleu
    As low as $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Gros Bleu is a hybrid French Lavender that is considered to be the very best of all the French hybrids. More compact than 'Grosso' but with equally darkly colored flowers, the scent is sweeter and with less camphor. Twice blooming.
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  3. Lavandula angustifolia WWG002 FlowerKisser™ After Midnight

    FlowerKisser™ After Midnight English Lavender has stunning, dark colored flower spikes with deep indigo-blue calyxes and large violet-purple flowers on a medium sized plant wit...

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    FlowerKisser™ After Midnight English Lavender FlowerKisser™ After Midnight English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia 'WWG002'
    As low as $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    FlowerKisser™ After Midnight English Lavender has stunning, dark colored flower spikes with deep indigo-blue calyxes and large violet-purple flowers on a medium sized plant with gray-green foliage.
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  4. Lavandula angustifolia 'Wee One', Photo Courtesy of Plant Select

    Lavandula angustifolia Wee One is a special dwarf English Lavender that blooms with a wonderful display of short blue flower spikes only 10" tall. It is the most compact Lavender cul...

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    Wee One Dwarf English Lavender Wee One Dwarf English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Wee One
    As low as $9.99 Sale $7.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Lavandula angustifolia Wee One is a special dwarf English Lavender that blooms with a wonderful display of short blue flower spikes only 10" tall. It is the most compact Lavender cultivar in cultivation.
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  5. Sharon Roberts Lavender Photo Courtesy of Emmis Oure

    Lavandula angustifolia Sharon Roberts is an outstanding twice blooming English Lavender with spikes of bicolored lavender-blue and gray-green foliage....

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    Sharon Roberts English Lavender Sharon Roberts English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Sharon Roberts
    As low as $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Lavandula angustifolia Sharon Roberts is an outstanding twice blooming English Lavender with spikes of bicolored lavender-blue and gray-green foliage.
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  6. Purple Lavandula angustifolia Pastor's Pride, Lavandula angustifolia Pastor's Pride, Pastor's Pride English Lavender

    Pastor's Pride is a twice blooming English lavender that has thrived in the Mid-West with excellent cold hardiness and moisture tolerance. This variety has nice chubby mid-blue flowe...

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    Pastor's Pride English Lavender Pastor's Pride English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Pastor's Pride
    As low as $11.99 Sale $9.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Pastor's Pride is a twice blooming English lavender that has thrived in the Mid-West with excellent cold hardiness and moisture tolerance. This variety has nice chubby mid-blue flower spikes in late spring and September.
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  7. Blue and Purple Lavandula angustifolia Munstead Violet, Lavandula angustifolia Munstead Violet, Munstead Violet English Lavender

    This exclusive HCG selection of English lavender has some of the darkest colored flowers youll ever see making it a stand-out in your garden! Faster growing than other dark colored L...

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    Munstead Violet English Lavender Munstead Violet English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Munstead Violet
    As low as $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    This exclusive HCG selection of English lavender has some of the darkest colored flowers youll ever see making it a stand-out in your garden! Faster growing than other dark colored Lavender selections like 'Hidcote'.
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  8. Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote Superior Photo Courtesy of Walter's Gardens Inc

    Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote Superior (Hidcote Superior Lavender) is sweetly fragrant, uniformly compact and blooms with darkly colored lavender-blue flower spikes in late spring....

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    Hidcote Superior English Lavender Hidcote Superior English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote Superior
    As low as $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote Superior (Hidcote Superior Lavender) is sweetly fragrant, uniformly compact and blooms with darkly colored lavender-blue flower spikes in late spring.
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  9. Red Delosperma Jewel of the Desert Garnet, Delosperma Jewel of the Desert Garnet, Garnet Dwarf Iceplant

    Delosperma Jewel of the Desert Garnet is dwarf hybrid Ice plant with a profusion of eye catching, dime sized flowers of scarlet and lavender. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant...

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    Jewel of Desert Garnet Ice Plant Jewel of Desert Garnet Dwarf Ice Plant Delosperma Jewel of Desert Garnet
    As low as $8.99 Sale $7.19
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Delosperma Jewel of the Desert Garnet is dwarf hybrid Ice plant with a profusion of eye catching, dime sized flowers of scarlet and lavender. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  10. Agastache Kudos™ Mandarin, Hummingbird Mint, Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc.

    Agastache Kudos Mandarin (Hummingbird Mint or Hyssop) has showy, bright-orange flowers on short flower spikes which are highly attractive to hummingbirds. Its compact size and bushy ...

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    Kudos™ Mandarin Agastache Kudos™ Mandarin Hummingbird Mint (Hyssop) Agastache Kudos™ Mandarin PP#25,381
    As low as $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Agastache Kudos Mandarin (Hummingbird Mint or Hyssop) has showy, bright-orange flowers on short flower spikes which are highly attractive to hummingbirds. Its compact size and bushy habit gives it a neat and tidy appearance, while it blooms from early summer through September.
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  11. Agastache Kudos™ Gold, Hummingbird Mint, Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc.

    Agastache Kudos Gold (Hummingbird Mint or Hyssop) is compact-growing and extremely long-blooming with golden-yellow flowers on short, tidy flower spikes from late spring to September...

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    Kudos™ Gold Agastache Kudos™ Gold Hummingbird Mint (Hyssop) Agastache Kudos™ Gold PP#26,410
    As low as $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Agastache Kudos Gold (Hummingbird Mint or Hyssop) is compact-growing and extremely long-blooming with golden-yellow flowers on short, tidy flower spikes from late spring to September. The nectar-rich tubular-shaped flowers are highly attractive to hummingbirds. Kudos Golds yellow flowers are an unusual color for the Agastache family.
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  12. Agastache Kudos™ Ambrosia, Hummingbird Mint Hyssop, Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc.

    Agastache Kudos Ambrosia (Hummingbird Mint Hyssop) is a compact-growing Agastache hybrid, with long-blooming flower spikes in a delightful changing color mix of creamy coconut, pale ...

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    Kudos™ Ambrosia Agastache Kudos™ Ambrosia Hummingbird Mint (Hyssop) Agastache Kudos™ Ambrosia PP#25,614
    As low as $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Agastache Kudos Ambrosia (Hummingbird Mint Hyssop) is a compact-growing Agastache hybrid, with long-blooming flower spikes in a delightful changing color mix of creamy coconut, pale orange and light rose-pink. Blooms early summer through September. Highly attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.
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The Xerces Society

As always when it come to insects, the Xerces Society is the go-to organization for good, scientifically based information on how the can protect our invertebrate (insect) friends. They have an outstanding book all about this incredibly wonderful group of pollinators titled Conserving bumblebees; Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for America's Declining Pollinators. This is the most comprehensive book on bumblebees and indispensable for learning all about this wonderful group of insects.

Be Proactive and Plant Flowers

Currently it is thought that Franklin's bumblebee, native to southern OR and northern CA is extinct. And while once common, many other species are imperiled. Plant for bumblebees and help protect these incredible creatures. Because a world without bumblebees is a thought too sad to contemplate.

Bumblebee Attracting Old World Plants

Bumblebee Attracting Native Plants

  1. Pink Phlox paniculata Jeana, Phlox paniculata Jeana, Jeana Garden Phlox

    Phlox Jeana is a new garden phlox introduction notable for its multi-month bloom time and colorful lavender-pink clusters of sweet fragrant flowers. It is also exceptionally cold har...

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    Jeana Garden Phlox Jeana Garden Phlox Phlox paniculata Jeana
    As low as $11.99 Sale $9.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Phlox Jeana is a new garden phlox introduction notable for its multi-month bloom time and colorful lavender-pink clusters of sweet fragrant flowers. It is also exceptionally cold hardy and highly attractive to butterflies.
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  2. White Phlox paniculata David, Phlox paniculata David, Tall White Garden Phlox

    Phlox David blooms in mid-summer with round heads of large, pure white, delightfully fragrant flowers. The foliage is mildew resistant and this perennial grows easily in compost-enri...

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    David Garden Phlox David Garden Phlox Phlox paniculata David
    As low as $10.49 Sale $8.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Phlox David blooms in mid-summer with round heads of large, pure white, delightfully fragrant flowers. The foliage is mildew resistant and this perennial grows easily in compost-enriched garden soil. The 2002 Perennial Plant Association Plant of the Year.
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  3. Phlox nana Perfect Pink, Perfect Pink Santa Fe Phlox

    Exclusive. Perfect Pink Phlox (Santa Fe Phlox) is a one of the very best Western wildflowers. Blooming in late spring with hundreds of large deep pink, white eyed flowers, it continu...

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    Perfect Pink Santa Fe Phlox Perfect Pink Santa Fe Phlox Phlox nana Perfect Pink
    As low as $9.99 Sale $7.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Exclusive. Perfect Pink Phlox (Santa Fe Phlox) is a one of the very best Western wildflowers. Blooming in late spring with hundreds of large deep pink, white eyed flowers, it continues to bloom off and on throughout the summer. Grows in any soil including heavy clay. Drought resistant/drought tolerant perennial plant (xeric). 2013 Plant of the Year.
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  4. Agastache Fall Fiesta Hummingbird Mint close up flowers

    Fall Fiesta Hybrid Hummingbird Mint (Agastache 'Fall Fiesta') is a brand-new hybrid that is impressive for its huge size and tall, head high, spikes of pink and orange flowers that a...

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    Fall Fiesta Agastache Fall Fiesta Hummingbird Mint (Hyssop) Agastache Fall Fiesta
    As low as $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Fall Fiesta Hybrid Hummingbird Mint (Agastache 'Fall Fiesta') is a brand-new hybrid that is impressive for its huge size and tall, head high, spikes of pink and orange flowers that appear many weeks later than other Agastache cultivars. An excellent late-season source of nectar for hummingbirds.
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