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.
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.
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.)
2-3" tall x 18-24" wide. Gray creeping germander blooms with fragrant honey scented pink flowers in summer that are held over equally fragrant thin linear gray leaves. The plant is ...Learn More
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 ...Learn More
Fireworks is well named. In late summer, the bright yellow sprays of tiny flowers look just like an exploding skyrocket on the 4th of July. A tall sturdy grower, it is a great compan...Learn More
Solidago Wichita Mountains (Golden Torch Goldenrod) is an unidentified species of Goldenrod originally collected from the Wichita Mts. Of southwestern Oklahoma. An upright growing se...Learn MoreGolden Torch Goldenrod Solidago sp. Wichita MountainsRegular Price $10.99 Sale $8.79Per Plant - 5" Deep PotYou save: 20%
Little Lemon is a hybrid Goldenrod that blooms in mid-summer with full, bright lemon-yellow flower spikes held over small compact plants. This dwarf variety is great for smaller gard...Learn More
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...Learn More
Blue Hill is a superb selection grown for its late spring display of clear blue flowers held over sturdy compact mounds of green foliage. It is extremely cold hardy, resistant to bro...Learn More
This is a vigorous evergreen groundcover with succulent, blue-green leaves and an explosion of shimmering fuchsia-pink flowers in late-spring through early summer. Rabbit resistant a...Learn More
Arp Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Arp) is a very cold hardy shrub Rosemary. It has a stiff upright growth habit and a mid-spring display of light blue flowers. Released by the Nat...Learn More
Lacy Blue Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia Lacey Blue) is a true dwarf cultivar discovered in an English garden and just recently introduced to the US. Its smaller size makes ...Learn MoreLacey Blue Dwarf Russian Sage Perovskia atriplicifolia Lacey BlueRegular Price $10.99 Sale $8.79Per Plant - 5" Deep PotYou save: 20%
Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires (Blue Spires Russian Sage) is the best large growing Russian Sage selection blooming with dark blue flower spikes appearing in mid-summer. Though...Learn MoreBlue Spires Russian Sage Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue SpiresRegular Price $10.99 Sale $8.79Per Plant - 5" Deep PotYou save: 20%
Penstemon Red Rocks (Beardtongue) is a superb hybrid variety that blooms most of the summer with large rose-pink flowers. The plants are vigorous and have attractive glossy green fol...Learn MoreRed Rocks Hybrid Beardtongue Penstemon mexicali Red RocksRegular Price $9.99 Sale $7.99Per Plant - 5" Deep PotYou save: 20%
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
- Agastache (Hyssop) — Plant small flowered species, such as A. foeniculatum, A. neomexicana, 'Blue Blazes', and others.
- Asclepias (Butterfly Weed)
- Baptisia (False Indigo)
- Ceonothus (Wild Lilac)
- Cercis (Red Bud tree)
- Cirsium (native Thistles)
- Clethra (Summersweet)
- Dalea (Prairie Clover)
- Dodecatheon (Shooting Star)
- Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)
- Eschscholzia (California Poppy)
- Gentiana (Gentian)
- Hedysarum (sweet vetch)
- Liatris (Gayfeather)
- Lonicera (Honeysuckle, shrubs, and vines)
- Lupinus (Lupine)
- Malus (Apples and crabapples)
- Monarda (Bee Balm)
- Monardella (Coyote Mint)
- Penstemon (Beardtongue) — Large flowered species
- Pycnanthemum (Mountain Mint)
- Rhododendron (Rhododendren)
- Rosa (Wild Roses)
Shop Native Perennials
Sunray is a compact, long blooming selection of the native tickseed. The showy double golden-yellow flowers are continuous over the summer when deadheaded. It thrives with heat and ,...Learn More
Exclusive. A stunning native wildflower, 'Mountain Red' blooms for months with hummingbird attracting clear red trumpet-shaped flowers. This is our special cold hardy strain and it d...Learn MoreRed Flowered Lamb's Ear (Scarlett Hedge Nettle) Stachys coccinea Mountain RedRegular Price $9.99 Sale $7.99Per Plant - 5" Deep PotYou save: 20%
Red Birds in a Tree is a rare shrub from the southern mountains of New Mexico and Arizona. It blooms all summer with spires of small red, white-lipped flowers that resemble a flock o...Learn More
© All articles are copyrighted by High Country Gardens. Republishing an entire High Country Gardens blog post or article is prohibited without permission. Please feel free to share a short excerpt with a link back to the article on social media websites, such as Facebook and Pinterest.