Like honeybees, bumblebees visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar to take back to their colonies to feed the developing brood.
In the UK there are around 24 species of bumblebee, some more common than others. They can be distinguished from honeybees by their relatively fat, furry bodies compared to the smaller, slimmer appearance of honeybees.
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Bumblebees don’t make honey, which is used by honeybees to sustain the colony over winter. Instead, bumblebee colonies, which are smaller than those of honeybees, die each year, with new nests created by queens that have overwintered, in spring. Newly emerged queens feed on nectar to boost their energy levels, then locate a suitable nest site, for example under a shed or in an old hole or burrow. Once sited, she’ll start collecting pollen as well as nectar to feed her first brood, once they hatch.
When it comes to flower preference, you’ll find that different flowers attract different species. Buff-tailed bumblebees, Bombus terrestris, are larger and less agile than smaller species and have relatively short tongues, so they tend to opt for larger flowers, with nectaries that are easily accessible. The garden or small bumblebee, Bombus hortorum, is smaller with a relatively long tongue, and prefers to visit flowers with deep corollae.
Check out some of our favourite flowers to grow for bumblebees, below.
Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis
Rosemary is great for those hot, dry spots in the garden, and on top of the flowers being a magnet for bumblebees and other pollinators, you’ll have fresh rosemary to use all year round.
Borage, Borago officinalis
The vivid blue flowers of borage produce masses of nectar, attracting pollinators like bumblebees and honeybees. As a bonus, borage is very easy to grow, simply requiring a spot in full sun or dappled shade, in moist, well-drained soil. The edible flowers can be used to garnish drinks and salads.
Scabious, Knautia arvensis, with crown vetch, Securigera varia
Scabious have broad flowerheads packed with small flowers, acting as a landing pad for bumblebees. It’s popular with many species and is planted here with crown vetch (Securigera varia) – another fantastic plant for bumblebees.
Foxglove ‘Illumination Pink’
Large species of bumblebee like buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and white-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) can often be spotted clambering into tubular foxglove blooms to reach the nectar within.
Video: Monty Don demonstrates how to plant foxgloves
Globe thistles have beautiful, perfectly spherical flowerheads in steely blues and purples. Like scabious, the flowers are held closely together, which means bumblebees can access many flowers without needing to expend lots of energy.
Common carder bee, Bombus pascuorum, on lavender ‘Hidcote’
Not just good for bumblebees, lavender will also attract butterflies and honeybees, so it’s a good all-round plant to grow for wildlife.
How to grow lavender
Chives, Allium schoenoprasum
Like rosemary, you can add the foliage of chives to your dishes, and like borage, the flowers are edible. The blooms are a hit with bumblebees, too, along with other pollinators like mason bees, Nomada bees and hoverflies.
Dahlia ‘Con Amore’ with visiting bumblebees
Go for single-flowered dahlias if you want to attract bumblebees. There are lots of single dahlias to grow, in a variety of patterns and colours. With regular deadheading, they’ll prove to be a valuable source of late nectar.
Red clover, Trifolium pratense with common carder bee, Bombus pascuorum
Wildflower meadows, even mini-meadows, can attract masses of pollinators. Red clover is often a component of these meadows, and for good reason – bumblebees love it! Check out three ways to start off a wildflower meadow.
Wild marjoram (oregano), Origanum vulgare
Wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare) is an aromatic herb with pale pink flowers that attract all manner of pollinators, bumblebees included. If you’re after oregano you can eat, too, try Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum, which is said to have the best flavour.
Meadow cranesbill, Geranium pratense
The open flowers of meadow cranesbill, Geranium pratense, can be easily accessed by a number of bumblebees, regardless of tongue length.
Some species of bumblebee, like the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) are on the wing earlier than other species, sometimes as early as February, so it’s important that gardeners supply plenty of early-flowering plants like hellebores, heathers and winter aconites. If you happen to come across a bumblebee nest in a compost heap or border, leave it alone and don’t disturb it if possible – the nest won’t last forever. If you don’t want bumblebees to nest there again, you can block up the entrance hole once the nest has died.
Buff-tailed bumblebee on cardoon flowerhead
Even more flowers bumblebees love