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. Callirhoe digitata, Standing Poppy Mallow, Standing Winecups

    Callirhoe digitata is a tall, upright-growing graceful perennial that blooms all summer with showy magenta-pink flowers. Callirhoe digitata is native to the lower mid-West and easter...

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    Fringed Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe) Fringed Poppy Mallow, Standing Winecups Callirhoe digitata
    As low as $8.99 Sale $7.64
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Callirhoe digitata is a tall, upright-growing graceful perennial that blooms all summer with showy magenta-pink flowers. Callirhoe digitata is native to the lower mid-West and eastern Great Plains. This wildflower is a favorite of bumblebees.
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  2. Pristine™ Pink Penstemon, Photo Courtesy of Plant Select

    An improved form of Penstemon, Pristine™ Pink (Penstemon barbatus) blooms for a long time in mid-summer, with glossy foliage that offers lasting texture. Medium-tall spikes of brig...

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    Pristine™ Pink Penstemon Pristine™ Pink Beardtongue Penstemon barbatus Pristine™ Pink
    Regular Price $10.99 Sale $9.34
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    You save: 15%
    An improved form of Penstemon, Pristine™ Pink (Penstemon barbatus) blooms for a long time in mid-summer, with glossy foliage that offers lasting texture. Medium-tall spikes of bright pink tubular flowers attract hummingbirds and bees. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  3. Ben Fhada Rock Rose, Helianthemum nummularium

    Ben Fhada Rock Rose (Helianthemum nummularium) is a small scale, low-water groundcover with evergreen foliage. A profuse display of long-blooming flowers with broad yellow petals and...

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    Ben Fhada Rock Rose (Helianthemum) Ben Fhada Rock Rose Helianthemum Ben Fhada
    Regular Price $9.99 Sale $8.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    You save: 10%
    Ben Fhada Rock Rose (Helianthemum nummularium) is a small scale, low-water groundcover with evergreen foliage. A profuse display of long-blooming flowers with broad yellow petals and orange eyes add bright, cheery color to your garden starting in early spring. Trailing evergreen foliage is a beautiful addition to rock gardens or dry slopes. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  4. Alpine Rock Thyme, Acinos alpinus

    Alpine Rock Thyme (Acinos alpinus), a wildflower from the southern mountains of Europe, is small growing perennial that’s perfect for rock gardens and xeriscapes. Short spikes of l...

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    Alpine Rock Thyme (Acinos) Alpine Rock Thyme Acinos alpinus
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Alpine Rock Thyme (Acinos alpinus), a wildflower from the southern mountains of Europe, is small growing perennial that’s perfect for rock gardens and xeriscapes. Short spikes of large purple flower in the summer top glossy green foliage, attracting bees.
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  5. Little Trudy® Nepeta

    Little Trudy® Nepeta (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ PP18,904) is a compact, long-blooming Catmint with warm purple flowers that bloom from late spring through summer, attracting bees and butt...

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    Little Trudy® Nepeta Little Trudy® Catmint Nepeta x Psfike PP#18,904
    Regular Price $9.99 Sale $8.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    You save: 15%
    Little Trudy® Nepeta (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ PP18,904) is a compact, long-blooming Catmint with warm purple flowers that bloom from late spring through summer, attracting bees and butterflies. Finely textured aromatic foliage will help to deter deer and rabbits.
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  6. Butterfly Weed, Milkweed

    Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a must-have for the pollinator garden with clusters of bright orange flowers in summer. This native wildflower is easy to grow, cold hardy, and...

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    Butterfly Weed Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosa
    Regular Price $10.99 Sale $9.89
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    You save: 10%
    Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a must-have for the pollinator garden with clusters of bright orange flowers in summer. This native wildflower is easy to grow, cold hardy, and does well in poor, dry soils. Asclepias is an important nectar source for Monarch butterflies and the sole host plant for Monarch caterpillars. Drought resistant/drought tolerant (xeric).
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  7. Nepeta Walker's Low, Walker's Low Catmint

    Nepeta Walker's Low (Walker's Low Catmint) is a robust variety with dark lavender-blue flowers in late spring and aromatic gray-green foliage. Thriving in harsh conditions, this dur...

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    Walker's Low Nepeta Walker's Low Catmint Nepeta Walker's Low
    As low as $9.99 Sale $8.49
    Per Plant - 3" Pot
    Nepeta Walker's Low (Walker's Low Catmint) is a robust variety with dark lavender-blue flowers in late spring and aromatic gray-green foliage. Thriving in harsh conditions, this durable, rabbit and deer resistant perennial plant is an indispensable for use in xeriscapes. Drought resistant/drought tolerant perennial plant (xeric).
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  8. Northern Dragonhead,  Dracocephalum ruyschiana

    The periwinkle flowers of Northern Dragonhead (Dracocephalum ruyschiana) are just as fascinating to pollinators as they are to gardeners! Two-lipped tubular blooms resembling dragon ...

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    Northern Dragonhead Northern Dragonhead Dracocephalum ruyschiana
    Regular Price $11.99 Sale $10.19
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    You save: 15%
    The periwinkle flowers of Northern Dragonhead (Dracocephalum ruyschiana) are just as fascinating to pollinators as they are to gardeners! Two-lipped tubular blooms resembling dragon heads appear in late spring, sure to attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. Narrow lance-shaped leaves are lightly aromatic. With a bushy and compact yet loose habit, this deer-resistant plant is an excellent choice for the front of garden borders, or trailing along walls in full sun locations.
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  9. Red Dwarf Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium)

    Red Dwarf' Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum 'Dwarf Red') is a showy native selection with big pink flower clusters in late summer. Its name refers to the fantastic burgundy-red ste...

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    Red Dwarf Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) Red Dwarf Joe Pye Weed Eupatorium maculatum Red Dwarf
    $11.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Red Dwarf' Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum 'Dwarf Red') is a showy native selection with big pink flower clusters in late summer. Its name refers to the fantastic burgundy-red stems that hold the flowers. Highly attractive to butterflies.
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  10. August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden, August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden, August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden

    When the rest of your garden is taking a late summer snooze, the August Afternoons perennial garden will wake you up with its engaging display of pinks and blues. By combining a plea...

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    August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden August Afternoons Pre-Planned Garden
    $176.83
    Per Garden of 17 Plants
    When the rest of your garden is taking a late summer snooze, the August Afternoons perennial garden will wake you up with its engaging display of pinks and blues. By combining a pleasing mixture of grasses, flower forms, and colors, this hummingbird and butterfly-attracting garden comes into bloom in August and continues through September. These easy-care plants thrive in most parts of the US and grow well in ordinary garden soil with full sun. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  11. Pink and White Aster lateriflorus Lady in Black, Aster lateriflorus Lady in Black, Lady in Black Aster

    Lady in Black is native wildflower with a profusion of rose-red centered white daisies in late summer and attractive purplish-black foliage. A nectar rich plant that attracts butte...

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    Lady in Black Aster Lady in Black Aster Aster lateriflorus Lady in Black
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Lady in Black is native wildflower with a profusion of rose-red centered white daisies in late summer and attractive purplish-black foliage. A nectar rich plant that attracts butterflies and bees. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  12. Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden

    This Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden creates a high impact cottage-garden look with masses of beautiful flowering plants. The bold groupings please with color, flower f...

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    Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden
    As low as $158.84 Sale $150.90
    Per Garden of 16 Plants

    This Butterfly Paradise Pre-Planned Cottage Garden creates a high impact cottage-garden look with masses of beautiful flowering plants. The bold groupings please with color, flower form, and foliage. Late spring to late summer bloom times.

    This Cottage Garden is available in two sizes. The large size includes a total of 30 plants, covering an area of 8 ft. x 12 ft. (90 sq. ft); the small size includes 16 plants, covering an area of 8 ft. x 5 ft. (40 sq. ft). Includes premium plants, planting map and care guide.

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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. Callirhoe digitata, Standing Poppy Mallow, Standing Winecups

    Callirhoe digitata is a tall, upright-growing graceful perennial that blooms all summer with showy magenta-pink flowers. Callirhoe digitata is native to the lower mid-West and easter...

    Learn More
    Fringed Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe) Fringed Poppy Mallow, Standing Winecups Callirhoe digitata
    As low as $8.99 Sale $7.64
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Callirhoe digitata is a tall, upright-growing graceful perennial that blooms all summer with showy magenta-pink flowers. Callirhoe digitata is native to the lower mid-West and eastern Great Plains. This wildflower is a favorite of bumblebees.
    Learn More
  2. Annabelle Dianthus

    Annabelle Dianthus is a small-growing variety with fragrant single white flowers that bloom for months, attracting bees and butterflies. Tidy mounding grass-like foliage make this a ...

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    Annabelle Dianthus Kahori® Annabelle Garden Pinks Dianthus Kahori® Annabelle
    Regular Price $9.99 Sale $8.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    You save: 15%
    Annabelle Dianthus is a small-growing variety with fragrant single white flowers that bloom for months, attracting bees and butterflies. Tidy mounding grass-like foliage make this a low-maintenance perennial to add bright color to your garden, attracting butterflies and bees.
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  3. Cardinal Penstemon Close Up of Red Tubular Blooms

    Cardinal Penstemon (Penstemon cardinalis) is a rare, cold hardy wildflower from the southern mountains of New Mexico. Tall, impressive spikes of dark red flowers bloom in mid-summer,...

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    Cardinal Penstemon Cardinal Beardtongue Penstemon cardinalis
    Regular Price $10.99 Sale $9.34
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    You save: 15%
    Cardinal Penstemon (Penstemon cardinalis) is a rare, cold hardy wildflower from the southern mountains of New Mexico. Tall, impressive spikes of dark red flowers bloom in mid-summer, making this favorite source of natural nectar for hummingbirds. A must-have for your pollinator garden. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  4. The Blues Little Bluestem Grass

    The Blues Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium) is an outstanding form of native Little Bluestem with cool blue-green leaves in summer. Foliage turns to a beautiful dusky purple in f...

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    The Blues Little Bluestem Grass The Blues Little Bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium 'The Blues'
    $9.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    The Blues Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium) is an outstanding form of native Little Bluestem with cool blue-green leaves in summer. Foliage turns to a beautiful dusky purple in fall, then to a deep gold in winter. 'The Blues' is an excellent ornamental grass for xeric gardens that mixes beautifully with colorful native perennials.
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