Gardening for bumblebees

by Kate Bradbury

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology suggests that gardens make better habitats for bumblebees than the countryside.

Bumblebee on cranesbill flowerA recent study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology suggests that gardens make better habitats for bumblebees than the countryside. This isn't surprising, as field margins and hedgerows have become scarce over the years, so many species of bumblebee now have few nesting options in the wild. It's great news for gardeners, as it means we can build on what we already have to make our gardens even better for bees.

If you cater for bumblebees in your garden then honeybees and solitary bees will generally follow suit. A bee-friendly garden should have a mix of nectar and pollen-rich flowers from March to November and somewhere to nest. There are six or seven (of 24) species of bumblebee that are likely to visit our gardens, each with different feeding, nesting and hibernation preferences. Tongue lengths determine which flowers the bees can feed on, so grow flowers with long corollas like red clover, honeysuckle and foxgloves to attract long-tongued bumblebees like the commmon carder (Bombus pascuorum) and the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), and white clover, lavender and the mountain cornflower (Centaurea montana) for smaller-tongued species like the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Providing a wide variety of flowers with long and short corollas will attract the greatest variety of bees.

The quality of nectar and pollen varies between plants and is an important consideration for bee-friendly gardeners. Nectar (carbohydrate) provides bees with the energy to fly, while pollen (protein) is fed to the bees at grub stage and can determine the bees' overall size and health. Highly bred plant cultivars tend to have been bred for their size, scent, appearance or disease resistance, so nectar quality can often be poor. Grow leguminous plants (such as peas and beans, clover, vetches and bird's foot trefoil) to provides bees with the best quality pollen and give them the greatest start in life. Mow your lawn less often to encourage white clover and birds’ foot trefoil to grow and provide a nutritious feast for bees.

Common carder queen feeding on jostaberry flower in MarchNesting requirements differ among species as well, so it's best to provide bumblebees with a range of options. Buff-tailed and red-tailed bumblebees, for example, may choose to nest underground in old mouse holes or beneath sheds, while the common carder generally chooses thickets of long grass or compost heaps to nest in. But bumblebees will nest anywhere they deem 'suitable', including bird boxes, lawnmowers, concrete paths and old duvets.

I’ve yet to encourage bumblebees to nest in my garden, despite providing them with a good source of food throughout the year. Last summer several bumblebees grew fond of one of my bird boxes and would pop inside to shelter from the sun, so I’m hopeful some might nest in there this year. I’ve also made a big pile of grass clippings, created areas of long grass, placed some plant debris beneath my shed and dug a hole under my compost bin. I just need to find a way of telling the bees.

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Talkback: Gardening for bumblebees
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Gardeners' World Web User 14/01/2011 at 15:32

We have bumblebees on our winter-flowering cherry tree on mild days in winter. I counted 7 yesterday, but I couldn't get a close look at them. Do you know what species they might be?

Gardeners' World Web User 14/01/2011 at 15:42

Milo - they're most likely to be buff-tailed bees, Bombus terrestris. No-one knows exactly why this species has started establishing winter colonies, but one theory is that some foreign strains that were imported from Europe to pollinate tomato crops escaped from their glass houses and cross-bred with our native strain. The foreign strain is less genetically predisposed to hibernating, so we suddenly have winter colonies of buff-tailed bumblebees. Kate

Gardeners' World Web User 14/01/2011 at 16:13

In the past 2 years, commercial beekeepers have seen dramatic drops in our honeybee populations, with some beekeepers in the USA seeing as much as a 90% reduction in their hives. The phenomenon is called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” and its cause is poorly understood. In France, similar mysterious die-offs in honeybee populations were attributed to a family of new neurotoxin pesticides called neonicotinids, with the main example of this group of chemicals being imidacloprid (sold as Gaucho and other brands by Bayer). Research at the University of Florida indicates that levels of this chemical declared “safe” for adult bees by Bayer are in fact fatal to larval (baby) bees. France has banned the use of imidacloprid and related pesticides. Source: and also read: Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Have we learned nothing since 'Silent Spring'? - Nature Studies, Nature - The Independent

Gardeners' World Web User 14/01/2011 at 19:26

last summer i had bees nesting in my birdbox,my poor little birds were booted out by the bees who took over the box,we also had another 2 nests of bees nesting in logs.... but 1 of my neighbours complained to the local council and said i was BREEDING WASPS...............'idiots'.... if i were i would of encouraged the wasps to go to there house and sting them...hahaha.

Gardeners' World Web User 15/01/2011 at 14:04

There's nowt so queer as folk! Someone saw the slow-worms that live in my garden, and said I kept snakes!

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