Ask a Master Gardener: Bumblebees: Workaholic pollinators

Bumblebees: Workaholic pollinators

Although the bumblebee isn’t the most glamorous insect around, this lovable bear of a bee surpasses even the celebrated honeybee when it comes to being industrious. Often up and out of the nest before dawn (way before the honeybees) they’re frequently still hard at work after the sun has set.  Entomologists have long recognized bumblebees as being one of the world’s most proficient pollinators. Not only is this plump pollinator built like a Mack truck to carry a lot of cargo, but it’s furry coat is tailor made for attracting pollen.

Bumblebees are important pollinators of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, melons, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries and many other crops. They are the only known pollinators of potatoes worldwide.  According to horticulturists at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, they are also the exclusive pollinator of several rare and imperiled wildflowers, including native monkshoods and lady’s tresses orchids.

The attribute for which bumblebees are best known, apart from its fuzzy coat, is probably its heft. The flowers that cater to this plus-size pollinator must be robust because, unlike the acrobatic hummingbird, the bumblebee has to perch on or cling to them in order to sip nectar and collect pollen. That is why the blooms of many snapdragons, mints, orchids, peas, and other flowers have modified lower petals, lips, aprons, or keels that serve as sturdy landing pads. 

It’s relatively easy to make your garden attractive to bumble bees. You don’t have to re-landscape your entire property; just tuck favorite bumblebee blooms in among your existing plants, or grow them in pots where you can observe the insects close up. In fact, most gardens here in our coastal area already have one of the bumblebee’s favorite flowers —rhododendrons. Other woody ornamentals that will attract this pollinator include California lilac, dogwood, viburnums, elderberry and willows. Herbaceous ornamentals include hollyhocks, larkspurs, lavenders, snapdragons, catmints, columbines, asters, sunflowers, lupines and violets and borage. 

Because they live in small nests (usually in the ground beneath a stump), bumblebees never swarm, so you can encourage a nest or two in the garden without fear of this happening. Those hoping for honey will be disappointed since bumble bees don’t produce enough honey for commercial use — just a few grams at a time for their own use. Not all bumblebees will sting. They are much less aggressive than honeybees. Generally, they will not attack a human at all, unless they feel threatened. Drones (smaller male bees which hatch in mid-summer) have no sting at all. Bumblebees do not lose their sting and die if they use it, as a honeybee will. Bumblebees have only a few natural enemies, skunks being one of the few animals that find bumblebees tasty, stinger and all.

If you find a nest, try not to disturb it. Remember, it will die out with the first frosts in the fall and then can be safely removed. If the bees are nesting under a wooden building, it may be possible to open another exit/entrance on another side of the structure and leave it for a few days for the bees to find. Then block up the old exit. Removing a nest to another location is sometimes possible, but you need an experienced beekeeper with protective clothing and veil to do this delicate job. 

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