Welcoming Pollinators: A Bumble Bee’s Guide to Gardening

As gardeners we tend to think of gardens as spaces that exist for our own purposes.  Gardens are places where we can relax or where we can grow food for our families. We grow plants for our enjoyment and needs. While there is nothing wrong with that, it might be interesting to view our gardens from the perspective of one of the common insects that inhabits our gardens: the bumble bee. If we could ask a bumble bee what we should grow or how to best design our gardens what would she say? 

Worldwide there are 263 species of bumble bee and in Ontario there are 28 species.  Many of these species are in decline and the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, once common in southern Ontario until the 1980s, is now endangered.

One of the reasons bumble bees are in decline is due to loss of habitat which includes the conversion of natural areas into crop land, residential, and commercial development. Wilderness areas are now cut off from one another creating isolated islands so animals can’t move from one area to another. Forty-five percent of insect populations worldwide are extinct due to habitat loss.

Invasive plants displace native plants and create monocultures leading to a decrease in diversity and do not offer the same nutritional rewards as do native plants (Holm, 42-45, 2014). As gardeners, we can create habitat for bumble bees and other pollinators in our gardens to help reverse this decline. The easiest way to create habitat is to include native plants in your garden.

Choose a variety of different types of plants that will offer continuous bloom from early spring to late fall. Plant perennials in clusters of 5 to 7 plants.  Bumble bees demonstrate flower constancy, which means they will forage on one particular flower type each time they leave the nest.  As well, if you plant only one of a particular plant, the bees may not notice it.

Choose straight species over cultivars. Cultivars tend to be less appealing to pollinators (White, 2016). They may be sterile, offering no nectar or pollen, they may have double blooms so pollinators may not be able to access the pollen or nectar.

Try some of these plants in your garden

Prairie Smoke- Genum triflorum: Full sun, early spring blooming. Grows 12″ tall.
Zig Zag Goldenrod- Solidago flexicaulis: Sun-shade, blooms mid-August -October. Up to 4′ tall.
New England Aster- Symphotrichum novae-angliae: Sun-part sun, blooms August -October. Up to 4′ tall.

More information:

Holm, Heather.  Pollinators of Native Plants:  Attract, Observe and  Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants. Pollination Press LLC, 2014.

White, Annie S. Pollinator gardens, posted by.  “From Nursery to Nature:  Are Native Cultivars as Valuable to Pollinators as Native Species?”   8 February 2013.http://pollinatorgardens.org

 Submitted by Carolyn Schmidt