How to help bumblebees

bumblebee pollinating a flower lilac
Bumblebee pollinating a flower lilac

Editor’s note: With this issue, Meleah Maynard has retitled her long-running Everyday Gardener column Livin’ Thing. She’ll still be writing about plants and gardens, but the scope of the column will expand to include other living things, as well.

The plight of honeybees is well publicized. But you don’t hear much about other bees that need our help, and that’s too bad because many other kinds of bees are also disappearing fast.

I’m hoping to raise awareness about what’s happening to bumblebees, particularly the rusty patched bumblebee. It’s not too late to help.

Of the 48 bumblebee species in North America, several are considered to be in decline for a variety of reasons. But in December of 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) was endangered because their numbers had declined by 87 percent over the past 20 years.

The rusty patched bumblebee was the first bee species in the continental U.S. to be declared endangered, but it probably won’t be the last. Minnesota is one of the few states where rusty patched bumblebees can still be found, and they are most commonly spotted in the Twin Cities area.

Reasons for the decline of bumblebees mirror those of other bees: pesticide use, climate change, habitat loss and disease have all seemingly contributed to their demise. The situation is dire, but there are positive things gardeners can do to help.

A good place to start is to stop using pesticides, or at least limit their use. Next, if you have a big yard and can allow a small space or two to include a few little piles of leaves or brush, queen bumblebees will thank you for the nice places to nest.

Because bumblebees are out early in spring and are active before many plants are in bloom, consider adding some early spring flowering bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees to your yard, like plums, hazelnut, witch hazel, willows, grape hyacinth, scilla (one of my favorite spring plants), snowdrops, crocus, hellebore and Virginia bluebells.

Of course, there are many other plants that can be added to your gardens to help bumblebees and other pollinators, too. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees don’t have a lot of honey stored in their nests, so they depend on available flowers.

The University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab has a lot of helpful information on bees on its website, including the two-page guide “Plants for Minnesota Bees,” which lists several flowering plants that bees like that are suited to most home landscapes. Remember to include plants that offer nectar and pollen because bees need both the protein from pollen and the carbohydrates from nectar to survive.

In addition to planting bumblebee favorites like blueberries, tomatoes, borage, sage, oregano and thyme, here are some standouts to consider from the Bee Lab’s list and other sources:

  • Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  • Autumn joy sedum (Hylotelephium telephium)
  • Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Catmint (Nepeta x fassenii)
  • Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  • Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
  • Honeysuckle vine (Lonicera)
  • Ironweed (Vernonia fasiculata)
  • Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
  • Primroses (Primula vulgaris)
  • Rough blazingstar (Liatris aspera)
  • Sea holly (Eryngium maritimum)
  • Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
  • Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)

To learn more about bumblebees, including more information on why they are disappearing and what their needs are in terms of habitat, nesting and overwintering, have a look at the Xerces Society publication, “Conserving Bumble Bees: Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for America’s Declining Pollinators.” I’d also like to suggest two great books about pollinators by local authors: “Pollinator Friendly Gardening” by Rhonda Hayes and “Pollinators of Native Plants” by Heather Holm.

Meleah Maynard is a writer, editor and master gardener. For more gardening ideas and tips, visit her blog, which has been renamed Livin’ Thing.