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. Blue Veronica liwanensis, Veronica liwanensis, Turkish Speedwell - Photo Credit by Plant Select

    Turkish speedwell is one of our showiest blue flowered groundcovers native to the mountains of Turkey. Spreading stems of evergreen foliage root as they spread across the soil and co...

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    Turkish Veronica Turkish Speedwell Veronica liwanensis
    As low as $7.99 Sale $6.39
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Turkish speedwell is one of our showiest blue flowered groundcovers native to the mountains of Turkey. Spreading stems of evergreen foliage root as they spread across the soil and cover themselves with bright blue flowers in late spring.
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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 $7.99
    Per Plant - 2.5" 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. 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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  4. Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires

    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...

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    Blue Spires Russian Sage Blue Spires Russian Sage Perovskia atriplicifolia Blue Spires
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    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. Thought to be a hybrid of two species, this plant has amazing vigor and blooms for many months.
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  5. Salvia sylvestris May Night, May Night Meadow Sage, Purple Salvia sylvestris May Night

    Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and toleran...

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    May Night Salvia May Night Meadow Sage Salvia sylvestris May Night
    As low as $9.49 Sale $7.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and tolerance of heavy clay soils. Blooming in late spring with a profusion of flower spikes, it reblooms later in the summer when deadheaded.
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  6. Lavandula angustifolia Thumbelina Leigh

    Thumbelina Leigh is a robust dwarf growing English variety with plump, deep lavender-blue flower spikes, and a strong, sweet fragrance. Maturing to a height of about 15 inches, it is...

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    Thumbelina Leigh Dwarf English Lavender Thumbelina Leigh Dwarf English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia Thumbelina Leigh
    As low as $12.49 Sale $9.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Thumbelina Leigh is a robust dwarf growing English variety with plump, deep lavender-blue flower spikes, and a strong, sweet fragrance. Maturing to a height of about 15 inches, it is one of the most compact cultivars in cultivation.
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  7. Pink Agastache Ava

    Agastache Ava is one of High Country Gardens very best plant introductions, renowned for its tall spikes of deep rose-pink flowers held by raspberry-red calyxes. This vigorous hybrid...

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    Ava Agastache Ava's Hummingbird Mint (Hyssop) Agastache Ava
    As low as $11.99 Sale $9.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Agastache Ava is one of High Country Gardens very best plant introductions, renowned for its tall spikes of deep rose-pink flowers held by raspberry-red calyxes. This vigorous hybrid Hummingbird Mint blooms for many months beginning in mid-summer. 2005 Plant of the Year.
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  8. Blue Veronica oltensis, Veronica oltensis, Thyme-leaf Speedwell

    Veronica oltensis (Thyme Leaf Speedwell) is a beautiful, tenacious, small scale groundcover with thin stems of tiny evergreen leaves that cover themselves with blue flowers in early ...

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    Thyme-Leaf Veronica Thyme-Leaf Speedwell Veronica oltensis
    As low as $8.99 Sale $7.19
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Veronica oltensis (Thyme Leaf Speedwell) is a beautiful, tenacious, small scale groundcover with thin stems of tiny evergreen leaves that cover themselves with blue flowers in early to mid-spring. Veronica oltensis is a little beauty that serves as an excellent crack filler between flagstone or pavers. Thyme Leaf Speedwell is a drought resistant/drought tolerant perennial plant (xeric).
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  9. Echinacea purpurea Magnus, Photo Credit by Walter's Garden

    Magnus is a distinctive, vigorous and large growing cone flower cultivar. The bright reddish-pink petals of its huge flowers are held flat as they radiate out from the cone, instead ...

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    Magnus Echinacea Magnus Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea Magnus
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $10.49 Sale $8.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Magnus is a distinctive, vigorous and large growing cone flower cultivar. The bright reddish-pink petals of its huge flowers are held flat as they radiate out from the cone, instead of curving backwards as is typical of most coneflowers.
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  10. Asclepias syriaca

    Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) is a gorgeous plant that produces purple/pink flower clusters that wildflower gardeners love and spreads quickly. This native perennial is a prima...

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    Common Milkweed Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $11.99 Sale $9.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) is a gorgeous plant that produces purple/pink flower clusters that wildflower gardeners love and spreads quickly. This native perennial is a primary food source for the Monarch butterfly providing large leaves for caterpillars and big pink globe-like flowers that provide nectar for the adult butterflies. Planting it will help to support Monarch populations. Perennial.
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  11. Blue and White Veronica pectinata, Veronica pectinata, Blue Woolly Speedwell

    Veronica pectinata (Woolly Speedwell) is one of our finest groundcovers. Growing with long stems of wooly evergreen foliage, the plants cover themselves with blue blooms, aging to la...

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    Blue Woolly Veronica Blue Woolly Speedwell Veronica pectinata
    As low as $7.99 Sale $6.39
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Veronica pectinata (Woolly Speedwell) is one of our finest groundcovers. Growing with long stems of wooly evergreen foliage, the plants cover themselves with blue blooms, aging to lavender-blue flowers in early to mid-spring. 2" tall x 18" wide.
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  12. Monarch Butterfly, Asclepias incarnata, Rose Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed

    Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a showy pink blooming Asclepias species that is a food plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars and a nectar source for adult butterflies. Also...

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    Rose Swamp Milkweed Rose Swamp Milkweed Asclepias incarnata
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is a showy pink blooming Asclepias species that is a food plant for Monarch butterfly caterpillars and a nectar source for adult butterflies. Also known as Swamp Milkweed, it grows best in moist or wet soils.
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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. Yellow Rudbeckia fulgida Goldsturm, Rudbeckia fulgida Goldsturm, Black Eyed Susan

    Rudbeckia Goldsturm blooms in mid-to-late summer with an eye-catching display of golden flowers. Black Eyed Susan is very attractive to butterflies and the seed heads provide winter ...

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    Goldsturm Black Eyed Susan Black Eyed Susan Rudbeckia fulgida Goldsturm
    As low as $9.99 Sale $7.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Rudbeckia Goldsturm blooms in mid-to-late summer with an eye-catching display of golden flowers. Black Eyed Susan is very attractive to butterflies and the seed heads provide winter food for seed-eating songbirds as well. Reliable and tough, Rudbeckia tolerates both drought and clay plus easy to maintain.
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  2. Pink Agastache Ava

    Agastache Ava is one of High Country Gardens very best plant introductions, renowned for its tall spikes of deep rose-pink flowers held by raspberry-red calyxes. This vigorous hybrid...

    Learn More
    Ava Agastache Ava's Hummingbird Mint (Hyssop) Agastache Ava
    As low as $11.99 Sale $9.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Agastache Ava is one of High Country Gardens very best plant introductions, renowned for its tall spikes of deep rose-pink flowers held by raspberry-red calyxes. This vigorous hybrid Hummingbird Mint blooms for many months beginning in mid-summer. 2005 Plant of the Year.
    Learn More
  3. Red and Orange Lonicera sempervirens Major Wheeler, Lonicera sempervirens Major Wheeler, Major Wheeler Honeysuckle Vine

    Major Wheeler Honeysuckle (Lonicera) is a non-stop bloomer coloring the garden from late spring through the summer with showy clusters of orange-red flowers. Considered to be the lon...

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    Major Wheeler Honeysuckle Vine Major Wheeler Honeysuckle Vine Lonicera sempervirens Major Wheeler
    Sale Price I Save 20%
    $12.99 Sale $10.39
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Major Wheeler Honeysuckle (Lonicera) is a non-stop bloomer coloring the garden from late spring through the summer with showy clusters of orange-red flowers. Considered to be the longest blooming variety of honeysuckle and a superior flower for the hummingbirds. 2010 Plant of the Year.
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  4. Yellow Coreopsis verticillata Zagreb, Coreopsis verticilliata Zagreb, Zagreb Whorled Tickseed

    12-18" tall x 18-24" wide. Coreopsis 'Zagreb' is a long blooming, easy-to-grow perennial with a big display of brilliant golden-yellow flowers beginning in late spring. Drought resis...

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    Zagreb Coreopsis Zagreb Whorled Tickseed Coreopsis verticilliata Zagreb
    As low as $10.99 Sale $8.79
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    12-18" tall x 18-24" wide. Coreopsis 'Zagreb' is a long blooming, easy-to-grow perennial with a big display of brilliant golden-yellow flowers beginning in late spring. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).
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