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. Bee Bonanza Ornamental Oregano Collection

    Our Bee Bonanza Bonanza Ornamental Oregano Collection will fill your garden with easy-care, fragrant, pollinator-favorite flowers. Our bee-friendly collection features three of our f...

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    Bee Bonanza Ornamental Oregano Collection Bee Bonanza Ornamental Oregano Collection
    $79.41
    Per Collection of 9
    Our Bee Bonanza Bonanza Ornamental Oregano Collection will fill your garden with easy-care, fragrant, pollinator-favorite flowers. Our bee-friendly collection features three of our favorite varieties, ranging from draping to upright, with flower clusters large and small in rose, pink, and magenta. Blooms in gardens or containers all summer and well into fall. Collection of 9 plants.
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  2. Angelina Stonecrop, Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'

    Fast-growing, and colorful, 'Angelina' Creeping Sedum (Sedum rupestre) adds a dazzling highlight with colors from chartreuse to golden yellow. Easy to grow, it will spread quickly as...

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    Angelina Sedum Angelina Stonecrop Sedum rupestre Angelina
    As low as $7.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Fast-growing, and colorful, 'Angelina' Creeping Sedum (Sedum rupestre) adds a dazzling highlight with colors from chartreuse to golden yellow. Easy to grow, it will spread quickly as a drought-tolerant groundcover. Bright yellow star-like flowers bloom in summer and foliage turns golden-orange in autumn. A great pick for rock gardens, dry borders, and large expanses of ground that need planting.
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  3. Edelweiss French Hybrid Lavender, Lavandula x intermedia 'Edelweiss'

    Edelweiss French Hybrid Lavender (Lavandula intermedia) blooms with a profuse summer display of snowy white flowers and sweetly aromatic foliage. This mid-sized French hybrid is a un...

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    Edelweiss Lavender Edelweiss Lavender Lavandula x intermedia Edelweiss
    As low as $11.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Edelweiss French Hybrid Lavender (Lavandula intermedia) blooms with a profuse summer display of snowy white flowers and sweetly aromatic foliage. This mid-sized French hybrid is a unique specimen for any gardener who loves Lavender. Plant in a soothing monochromatic color scheme, or plant with blue flowered cultivars to create a delightful color combination.
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  4. Manzano Mountains Strain Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus triglochidiatus Manzano Mts., growing in rock garden with red flowers

    Our Manzano Mountains Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) has stout stems with fewer spines than are typical for the species, for an unusual appearance that cold hardy cac...

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    Manzano Mountains Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus) Manzano Mountains Strain Hedgehog Cactus Echinocereus triglochidiatus Manzano Mts.
    $12.99
    Per Plant - 2" Pot
    Our Manzano Mountains Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) has stout stems with fewer spines than are typical for the species, for an unusual appearance that cold hardy cacti growers will appreciate. Deep red mid-spring flowers are a hummingbird favorite. Tough and very cold hardy, this native cactus is a great rock garden specimen or addition to the xeric landscape. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
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  5. Li'l Bang Starstruck Tickseed, Coreopsis Li'l Bang Starstruck

    Li'l Bang™ 'Starstruck' Coreopsis hits a home run for easy-to-grow, colorful, pollinator-friendly flowers. Blooming with rosy-red-to-pink cheerful blossoms with bright yellow eyes,...

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    Li'l Bang™ Starstruck Coreopsis Li'l Bang™ Starstruck Tickseed Coreopsis Li'l Bang™ Starstruck
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Li'l Bang™ 'Starstruck' Coreopsis hits a home run for easy-to-grow, colorful, pollinator-friendly flowers. Blooming with rosy-red-to-pink cheerful blossoms with bright yellow eyes, it will keep you in color from mid-summer to mid-fall. Great for containers too, and deer resistant.
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  6. Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Beard Tongue, Penstemon strictus ‘WWG06’

    Blanca Peak™ White Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is an award-winning white-flowered selection of our native Rocky Mountain Penstemon. Large, tubular flowers are a favorite nectar ...

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    Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Penstemon Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Beardtongue Penstemon strictus 'WWG06'
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Blanca Peak™ White Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is an award-winning white-flowered selection of our native Rocky Mountain Penstemon. Large, tubular flowers are a favorite nectar source for bumblebees. Plant this easy-to-grow beardtongue for a sturdy, long-lived late-spring bloomer in your xeriscape. This beauty thrives in most well-drained soil with full sun exposure. A 2021 Plant Select® Winner. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
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  7. Rose Marvel Meadow Sage, Salvia nemorosa 'Rose Marvel', pink flowers

    'Rose Marvel' Salvia (Salvia nemorosa) adds stunning spikes of large magenta-pink flowers to the summer garden. It’s a garden workhorse, reblooming without needing to be cut back, ...

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    Rose Marvel Salvia Rose Marvel Meadow Sage Salvia nemorosa Rose Marvel
    $11.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    'Rose Marvel' Salvia (Salvia nemorosa) adds stunning spikes of large magenta-pink flowers to the summer garden. It’s a garden workhorse, reblooming without needing to be cut back, and a pollinator favorite, attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The lovely herbaceous-scented foliage is deer and rabbit resistant. Drought tolerant once established. Nice cut flowers too!
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  8. SunSparkler® Dazzleberry Stonecrop, Sedum 'Razzleberry'

    Bold and beautiful, SunSparkler® 'Dazzleberry' Sedum sports smoky blue-grey foliage in 6-inch-tall mounds. Come late summer, raspberry flower clusters cover the plant for long-lasti...

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    SunSparkler® Dazzleberry Sedum SunSparkler® Dazzleberry Stonecrop PP#22457 Sedum Dazzleberry PP#22457
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Bold and beautiful, SunSparkler® 'Dazzleberry' Sedum sports smoky blue-grey foliage in 6-inch-tall mounds. Come late summer, raspberry flower clusters cover the plant for long-lasting color. Easy-to-grow and pollinator-friendly, it’s a great low maintenance perennial for groundcovers, rock gardens, borders, and containers in sunny, dry areas. 'Dazzleberry' will naturalize and spread creating a carpet of easy-care color.
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  9. SunSparkler® Lime Twister Stonecrop, Sedum 'Lime Twister', pink flowers

    SunSparkler® 'Lime Twister' Sedum is a two-toned garden knockout with lime green foliage edged in a buttery yellow. This hardy succulent blooms in late summer with rose-pink flowers...

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    SunSparkler® Lime Twister Sedum SunSparkler® Lime Twister Stonecrop PP#26895 Sedum Lime Twister PP#26895
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    SunSparkler® 'Lime Twister' Sedum is a two-toned garden knockout with lime green foliage edged in a buttery yellow. This hardy succulent blooms in late summer with rose-pink flowers that last for well over a month, supporting pollinators and brightening the late summer to fall garden. An easy-to-grow choice that will spread to fill containers, borders, and water-thrifty gardens. Deer and rabbit resistant.
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  10. SunSparkler® Wildfire Stonecrop, Sedum 'Wildfire'

    SunSparkler® 'Wildfire' Sedum blazes with ruby red petals edged in hot pink. Late summer brings clusters of long-blooming pink flowers. It’s an attention-worthy groundcover that w...

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    SunSparkler® Wildfire Sedum SunSparkler® Wildfire Stonecrop PP#28621 Sedum Wildfire PP#28621
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    SunSparkler® 'Wildfire' Sedum blazes with ruby red petals edged in hot pink. Late summer brings clusters of long-blooming pink flowers. It’s an attention-worthy groundcover that will naturalize to fill a sunny, dry area. In fact, the more sun, the brighter the color. A perfect easy-to-grow addition to a rock garden, container, or any sunny spot that needs a water-thrifty color boost. Deer and rabbit resistant.
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  11. Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus intricatus

    A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat....

    Learn More
    Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus) Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany Cercocarpus intricatus
    $12.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat. Its compact size and outstanding durability make it an excellent choice for hedging and xeric landscaping. In mid-spring, the shrub is covered in plumes of tiny pale flowers, which are pollinated by small native bees to create feathery seed tails that catch the afternoon light.
    Learn More
  12. FlowerKisser Everpink Desert Willow, Chilopsis linearis 'WWG08'

    FlowerKisser™ Everpink Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a seedless desert willow with large, fragrant pink flowers that cover the plant all summer long. This wide-growing nati...

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    FlowerKisser™ Everpink Desert Willow FlowerKisser™ Everpink Desert Willow Chilopsis linearis 'WWG08'
    $14.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    FlowerKisser™ Everpink Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a seedless desert willow with large, fragrant pink flowers that cover the plant all summer long. This wide-growing native tree loves heat and full sun, making it a versatile addition to hot, dry gardens. Nectar-rich blooms are highly attractive to hummingbirds. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
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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. Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Beard Tongue, Penstemon strictus ‘WWG06’

    Blanca Peak™ White Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is an award-winning white-flowered selection of our native Rocky Mountain Penstemon. Large, tubular flowers are a favorite nectar ...

    Learn More
    Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Penstemon Blanca Peak™ Rocky Mountain Beardtongue Penstemon strictus 'WWG06'
    $10.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Blanca Peak™ White Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) is an award-winning white-flowered selection of our native Rocky Mountain Penstemon. Large, tubular flowers are a favorite nectar source for bumblebees. Plant this easy-to-grow beardtongue for a sturdy, long-lived late-spring bloomer in your xeriscape. This beauty thrives in most well-drained soil with full sun exposure. A 2021 Plant Select® Winner. A High Country Gardens Introduction.
    Learn More
  2. SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Beard Tongue, Penstemon pinifolius ‘P019S', orange flowers

    A soft orange-flowered selection of pineleaf beardtongue, SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) is a native cultivar that starts flowering in late spring and attr...

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    SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Penstemon SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Beardtongue Penstemon pinifolius 'P019S'
    $8.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    A soft orange-flowered selection of pineleaf beardtongue, SteppeSuns® Sunset Glow Penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) is a native cultivar that starts flowering in late spring and attracts numerous pollinators and hummingbirds. Reminiscent of Colorado summer sunsets, its long-lasting blooms add a warm glow to dry area gardens. Finely textured evergreen foliage forms a compact mound for year-round interest.
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  3. Purple Beauty Creeping Phlox, Phlox subulata Purple Beauty growing in rock garden as groundcover

    An easy-to-grow groundcover, 'Purple Beauty' Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) carpets the mid-to-late spring garden with starry lavender-purple flowers. Whether you are looking for a ...

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    Purple Beauty Creeping Phlox Purple Beauty Creeping Phlox Phlox subulata Purple Beauty
    $10.49
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    An easy-to-grow groundcover, 'Purple Beauty' Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) carpets the mid-to-late spring garden with starry lavender-purple flowers. Whether you are looking for a water-thrifty addition to flow through a rock garden, or a beautiful way to highlight a spring-blooming bulb collection, 'Purple Beauty' will add pollinator-friendly, drought-tolerant spring beauty to your garden.
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  4. Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany, Cercocarpus intricatus

    A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat....

    Learn More
    Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus) Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany Cercocarpus intricatus
    $12.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    A native shrub from the southwestern US, Littleleaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus intricatus) features attractive silvery evergreen foliage for year-round interest and bird habitat. Its compact size and outstanding durability make it an excellent choice for hedging and xeric landscaping. In mid-spring, the shrub is covered in plumes of tiny pale flowers, which are pollinated by small native bees to create feathery seed tails that catch the afternoon light.
    Learn More

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