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. 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
    As low as $8.99 Sale $6.74
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    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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  2. Nepeta faassenii Select Blue

    Nepeta 'Select Blue' (Select Blue Catmint) is a fantastic xeric perennial with dramatic lavender-blue flowers and handsome gray-green foliage. A recurrent bloomer, the first flush of...

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    Select Blue Nepeta Select Blue Catmint Nepeta faassenii Select Blue
    As low as $9.99 Sale $7.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Nepeta 'Select Blue' (Select Blue Catmint) is a fantastic xeric perennial with dramatic lavender-blue flowers and handsome gray-green foliage. A recurrent bloomer, the first flush of flowers comes in late spring, and again later in summer. A long-lived, easily grown perennial, this is an excellent plant for beginners.
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  3. Fallugia paradoxa seed head with bee. Photo courtesy of Emmis Oure

    Apache Plume is one of our showiest native western shrubs. Beginning in late spring and continuing through summer the plant blooms with single white flowers that set fluffy pink seed...

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    Apache Plume (Fallugia) Apache Plume Fallugia paradoxa
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $12.99 Sale $9.74
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Apache Plume is one of our showiest native western shrubs. Beginning in late spring and continuing through summer the plant blooms with single white flowers that set fluffy pink seed heads. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  4. Papaver orientale Brilliant

    Brilliant Oriental Poppy was made famous by New Mexico artist Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. Papaver orientale Brilliant blooms in late spring with huge scarlet-orange flowers and is ...

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    Brilliant Oriental Poppy Brilliant Oriental Poppy Papaver orientale Brilliant
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $11.99 Sale $8.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Brilliant Oriental Poppy was made famous by New Mexico artist Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. Papaver orientale Brilliant blooms in late spring with huge scarlet-orange flowers and is an outstanding variety.
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  5. Purple Aster novi-belgii Professor Kippenberg close up

    Aster Novi-belgii ‘Professor Kippenberg’ is a reliably blooming New York Aster with late summer/early fall display of blue flowers on tall self-supporting stems....

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    Professor Kippenberg New York Aster Professor Kippenberg New York Aster Aster novi-belgii Professor Kippenberg
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $9.99 Sale $7.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Aster Novi-belgii ‘Professor Kippenberg’ is a reliably blooming New York Aster with late summer/early fall display of blue flowers on tall self-supporting stems.
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  6. Sedum Autumn Fire Fall Color, Red and Pink Sedum Autumn Fire, Autumn Fire Stonecrop

    Autumn Fire is an improved form of Sedum 'Autumn Joy' that is larger growing, has larger flower heads and is longer blooming. The flat heads of rose-pink flowers appear in late summe...

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    Autumn Fire Sedum Autumn Fire Stonecrop Sedum Autumn Fire
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $10.99 Sale $8.24
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Autumn Fire is an improved form of Sedum 'Autumn Joy' that is larger growing, has larger flower heads and is longer blooming. The flat heads of rose-pink flowers appear in late summer. Leave the faded flowers on the plant for added winter interest.
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  7. Hymenoxys hoopesii, Owl's Claws, Orange Sneezeweed, close up of  huge golden-yellow flowers

    Owl's Claw (Hymenoxys hoopesii) is a fabulous native mountain wildflower with huge golden-yellow flowers in summer. With its long, downward curving golden-yellow flower petals and ce...

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    Owl's Claws (Hymenoxys) Owl's Claws, Orange Sneezeweed Hymenoxys hoopesii
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $9.99 Sale $7.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Owl's Claw (Hymenoxys hoopesii) is a fabulous native mountain wildflower with huge golden-yellow flowers in summer. With its long, downward curving golden-yellow flower petals and center cone, the graceful flowers are eye-catching. Highly attractive to many types of butterflies and bees, this durable perennial likes average to wet soil moisture and cool growing conditions, not for hot climates.
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  8. Solidago sphacelata Golden Fleece

    Golden Fleece is a small growing goldenrod with sprays of arching golden-yellow flower spikes in late summer. A strong but compact plant, it is a great companion planted in front of ...

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    Golden Fleece Goldenrod (Solidago) Golden Fleece Dwarf Goldenrod Solidago sphacelata Golden Fleece
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $11.99 Sale $8.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Golden Fleece is a small growing goldenrod with sprays of arching golden-yellow flower spikes in late summer. A strong but compact plant, it is a great companion planted in front of taller, late blooming perennials. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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  9. Star Frost Echinops frosty white circular blooms, Echinops 'Star Frost', Echinops bannaticus

    ‘Star Frost’ Echinops (Echinops bannaticus), also called Globe Thistle, is an eye-popping beauty in frosty white with spherical flowers on sturdy stems. Rising from thistle-like ...

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    Star Frost Echinops Star Frost Globe Thistle Echinops bannaticus Star Frost
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $11.99 Sale $8.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    ‘Star Frost’ Echinops (Echinops bannaticus), also called Globe Thistle, is an eye-popping beauty in frosty white with spherical flowers on sturdy stems. Rising from thistle-like deep green leaves with silvery undersides, ‘Star Frost’ will bloom from mid-summer to early fall. Plant them in a sweep for dramatic effect. At 3-4 feet tall they are just right for a perennial bed, cutting garden, or pollinator garden - bees and butterflies love them too.
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  10. 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 $9.74
    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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  11. Salvia Amistad Friendship Sage with Bumblebee HBLZ351

    Salvia Amistad (also known as Friendship Sage, PP# 23578) is a large growing Sage that blooms for several months with huge violet-purple flowers that attract hummingbirds. If Salvia ...

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    Amistad Salvia Amistad Friendship Sage Salvia Amistad PP#23,578
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $11.99 Sale $8.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Salvia Amistad (also known as Friendship Sage, PP# 23578) is a large growing Sage that blooms for several months with huge violet-purple flowers that attract hummingbirds. If Salvia Amistad is outside of your USDA growing zone, it can be grown in pots as an annual (it has vigorous growth in the first year) and it can often overwinter in a garage.
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  12. Red Papaver orientale Double Red Shades, Papaver orientale Double Red Shades, Red Shades Poppy

    Double 'Red Shades' blooms in late spring with large, showy double red flowers. This is an outstanding seed grown variety....

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    Double Red Shades Oriental Poppy Double Red Shades Poppy Papaver orientale Double Red Shades
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $10.99 Sale $8.24
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Double 'Red Shades' blooms in late spring with large, showy double red flowers. This is an outstanding seed grown variety.
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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. 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...

    Learn More
    Butterfly Weed Butterfly Weed Asclepias tuberosa
    As low as $8.99 Sale $6.74
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    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).
    Learn More
  2. Aquilegia chrysantha, Golden Spur Columbine flower closeup

    30-36" tall x 18" wide. Golden Spur columbine yellow blooms for months beginning in late spring with a profusion of large, cheerful yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds. Allow th...

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    Golden Spur Columbine Golden Spur Columbine Aquilegia chrysantha
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $9.99 Sale $7.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    30-36" tall x 18" wide. Golden Spur columbine yellow blooms for months beginning in late spring with a profusion of large, cheerful yellow flowers that attract hummingbirds. Allow the plant to reseed itself to form colorful long lived colonies. (seed propagated).
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  3. Fallugia paradoxa seed head with bee. Photo courtesy of Emmis Oure

    Apache Plume is one of our showiest native western shrubs. Beginning in late spring and continuing through summer the plant blooms with single white flowers that set fluffy pink seed...

    Learn More
    Apache Plume (Fallugia) Apache Plume Fallugia paradoxa
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $12.99 Sale $9.74
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Apache Plume is one of our showiest native western shrubs. Beginning in late spring and continuing through summer the plant blooms with single white flowers that set fluffy pink seed heads. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
    Learn More
  4. Purple Aster novi-belgii Professor Kippenberg close up

    Aster Novi-belgii ‘Professor Kippenberg’ is a reliably blooming New York Aster with late summer/early fall display of blue flowers on tall self-supporting stems....

    Learn More
    Professor Kippenberg New York Aster Professor Kippenberg New York Aster Aster novi-belgii Professor Kippenberg
    Sale Price I Save 25%
    $9.99 Sale $7.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Aster Novi-belgii ‘Professor Kippenberg’ is a reliably blooming New York Aster with late summer/early fall display of blue flowers on tall self-supporting stems.
    Learn More

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