Monday, January 11, 2010


Bumblebees are a gardener's dream.  They emerge early in the season and work from sun up to sun down.  Us Northern gardeners rely on their pollination during particularly cold Springs as they are able to generate body heat with their shivering.  Without bumbles early blooming species (think fruit trees) could go unpollinated  during cold spells.  This ability to work in the cold poses a risk to the gentle giants.  They can be "grounded" by cold weather.  If this grounding lasts an extended length of time the bees will perish as they need a constant food source.  Most of us have come across a bumble that can't fly away early in the morning or during a cold Spring day.  We can help these bees (which early in the season are often queens emerging from their nest) by providing a food source and warmth, here is how:

From, this and other great info can be found under the "Help Bees" section:

If you find a grounded bumblebee early in the year, just at the start of the first warmer days, then it is probably a queen. She may have been caught out in a sudden shower or a cold spell. If the temperature of the thorax falls below 30 oC the bumblebee cannot take off (see temperature regulation). The best thing you can do it pick her up using a piece of paper or card, put her somewhere warmer, and feed her. When she has warmed and fed she will most likely fly off. You can feed her using a 30/70 mixture of honey and water in a pipette or eye dropper, or just a drop of this on a suitable surface within her reach, but be careful not to wet her hair or get her sticky. By saving a queen you may have saved an entire nest. If the weather is really unsuitable for letting her go, or if it is getting dark, you can keep her for a day or so if you are willing to feed her.
A grounded bee found at the height or end of summer is another matter. Look at the wings. If they are ragged round the edges (see the photographs of wings) then you have either an old queen or an old worker. There is little you can do as really it is their time to die, however you could take them in and feed them if you wish, but let them go if they start to fly. If the wings are fairly intact then you have probably got a male that is either cold or has been so busy patrolling that he forgot to drink. As above you can take him somewhere warm and feed him, then let him go.

Bumbles in general are attracted to yellow, purple, and blue flowers, especially those with tubular flowers. "Double" varieties of most flowers will not contain pollen so are of no use to bees.  Foxglove and Heather are used as shelter when rain arrives suddenly.  The following flowers are great bumble attractors:

  • Blueberry Bush bells
  • Blooms of the Nightshade Family
  • Columbine
  • Delphinium
  • Snapdragon
  • Bergamot
  • Larkspur
  • Honeysuckle
  • Lavender
  • Salvia
  • Clover (yup, that white clover in your lawn)  :)

*Many flowers are great multi-species bee attractors in general, such as those found in 'cottage gardens', natives, berry and fruit blooms, high pollen sunflowers, and herbs.*

A food source is not the only requisite for hosting bumbles, they also require a good spot to nest.  Bees tunnel into bare dirt to lay eggs and hibernate, so mulch of any sort makes a landscape unsuitable (this is more problematic in urban settings).  The base of stones and hedges are frequent nesting sites so be careful not to disturb these areas whenever possible.  Curious about how to sex a bee to see if it can sting?  Check out an older post on the subject of bee bits here.


Erin said...

My biggest attractors are my salvia bushes and catmint. Each is covered with at least 30-40 bumbles at any given time during the warm season! They are perennial too, so that's a big bonus... they are already in bloom when the bumbles arrive in spring. In the 4 years of having the yard planted, we have hundreds of bumbles and I am happy to report that no stings have occurred! And that includes me pruning and getting right in there with them. They really are docile and a joy to have around, I find myself talking to them as they seem to hang around and listen, unlike the hummingbirds LOL! Great post Kelly, I will be on the lookout for grounded bees this spring!

Kelly said...

I have never been stung either (as an adult). I have both catmint and salvia in my foundation plantings, but it's the clover in the lawn , hosta blooms, and the veggie garden that they seem to prefer. I believe they frequent their own 'territories' though, so it makes sense that what they like is always buzzing since they return to the same blooms over and over. They make good company in the garden, that is for sure!

Thomas said...

I never thought about doing this. Good to know. The previous owner of our home had orkin come every month to spray the house. I was horrified to find a bunch of death bumble bees in front of our garage. Needless to say, we put a stop to that. Now I have to worry about pesticide residue in the growing beds around my house, which I was hoping to utilize this summer for veggies.

Kelly said...

Yuck Thomas, that is too bad. How long will the residues last?

Michelle said...

This is great information! I love this...and will do it, absolutely. I wonder if it's the same for bees...? I find them quite often around here. I'll have to go to the web site and read up on it. Thank you for sharing...!

Thomas said...

I don't know Kelly, they have been spraying for the past few years and I need to get soil samples tested this spring. Nothing showing up would be a miracle.