Attracting Bumble Bees with Early Spring Blooming Plants

Baptisia australis attracts bees to the wildlife garden

Pollinators love False Indigo (Baptisia australis)

Spring is always filled with “firsts”. The first Mourning Cloak butterfly, first flock of Robins running along the grass and the first bumble bee.

The bumble bees really excite me. Those big hairy bodies, buzzing and wobbling through the air, are among the signs that spring has truly arrived. These early bumble bees are the queens that overwintered by hibernating underground. I often wonder what they find to eat when it seems so little is available.

These thoughts Iead me to evaluate my garden. Do I have enough early spring blooming plants? Which ones are attractive to the bumble bees?

Each year I add more native plants for wildife to my garden. And finding out which plant to plant takes detective work.

It isn’t often that I find a list for just what I want. If I could find a plant list of “Early Blooming Native Plants of the Delaware Valley Which Attract Bumble Bees”, I would love it. But, since I haven’t found that list, I have to “roll” my own.

Here are some of the steps I take to identify which plant the bumble bees will need.

First, I watch the bumble bees. I note in my nature journal which plants I see the bees visiting and what they do there. Do they stay or immediately fly off? Is she sipping nectar? Are her pollen sacs filled? The Bumble bees themselves tell me what plants attract them.

Second, I sift through the plant lists that I collect. Nature preserves and natural places, sometimes publish lists of what plants are in bloom, when. These are in effect blooming calendars for an area. I had a list of early-blooming plants from Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in Bucks County. I cross-checked that with mentions of bumble bee plants in my books on insect-plant interactions.

Here is what I have come up with so far. “Early Blooming Native Plants of the Delaware Valley Which Attract Bumble Bees:”

  • Acontium, various species – Monkshood
  • Amelanchier, various species – Shadbush
  • Aquilegia canadensis – Columbine
  • Baptisa australis – Blue False Indigo
  • Cercis canadensis – Redbud
  • Cornus florida – Dogwood
  • Dicentra cucullaria – Dutchman’s Breeches
  • Lindera bezoin – Spicebush
  • Mertensia pulmonariodes – Virginia Bluebells
  • Penstemons, various local species
  • Ranunculus, various species – Buttercup
  • Senecio, various species – Golden Groundsels
  • Tiarella cordifolia – Foamflower

I am glad to find out I have quite a few of these plants in my garden already. My neighbors don’t have to know that my garden is full of bumblee bee enticing plants. They just know it looks pretty.

I hope this list is early enough in the season to help you plan. A list helps me plan my garden, instead of being let loose at the spring native plant sales. Without a list, it is like going to the supermarket hungry. I always end up buying far more than I need or have room for.

Wildlife gardening is just coming into its own. Several great books have been published in the last few years including the recent, Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces SocietyGuide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat by the Xerces Society.

If we create lists and share them online, it will be that much easier to help those new to the wildlife gardening fold.

I am a writer and naturalist living in the beautiful Delaware River Valley of Pennsylvania. I write about natural history topics. I’m very grateful to be human and to have a beautiful abundant world to live in. I work, volunteer, write and blog, to call attention to those everyday joys and wonders, that make living here on planet Earth so good. By being mindful of what we do, we are not saving the Earth, we are saving life on Earth, including ourselves. Follow @donnallong on Twitter

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  1. says

    Great list! I know there are some bugs out now here, because I see them occasionally, but I haven’t the foggiest what they’re living on–none of our spring ephemerals have popped yet. The bumblebees haven’t woken up yet, though, which is probably a good thing, because all I’ve got to offer them at the moment is a scattering of dandelions!
    Ursula Vernon recently posted..Obligatory Annual Deer-Hating Post

  2. says

    Thanks, Ursula
    I saw gnats flying this past week. I can’t say I was happy to see them, but I did think, “Thank goodness winter is over.”
    Some of these early-flying insects don’t eat anything they just reach maturity, mate and then die. Maybe this the case with whatever species of insects are out now.
    Donna L. Long recently posted..Naturalist News – March 2011

    • says

      Well, Alan
      Sugar is sugar. Nectar is pretty much the same ratio of sugar and water, no matter the plant.
      Forsythia and Butterfly Bush draw pollinators because of the abundance of nectar, but they probably don’t feed insect larva.
      Non-native nectar-rich plants are basically one-hit-wonders. Native plants are versatile performers.
      Donna L. Long recently posted..Naturalist News – March 2011

  3. Jane U. says

    I’ve got blue and yellow false indigo, dogwood and lots of buttercups!! None of them are blooming, yet (Central VA) but I’ll be ready for the bumbles!

  4. Phil B says

    Going on three years now, I planted wildflower seed and each year it re-invents itself with various species of plants and flowers. Having such a variety helped to determine what insects were attracted to each type of plant.

  5. says

    Wow! Wonderful advice here, Donna! I like the observation suggestion. My bumbles are particularly attracted to my natives Chamaecrista fasciculata (PARTRIDGE PEA) and Lythrum alatum var. lanceolatum (WINGED LOOSESTRIFE), they even doze off in the loosetrife and until I realized this, I thought one poor fellow was deceased….now I realize probably just “intoxicated” HA! Thanks for a wonderful article and list!
    Loret recently posted..The Awakening – Giant Swallowtail

    • says

      Thank you all for the wonderful replies.

      I was at the Philadelphia Flower Show yesterday and couldn’t respond to your comments. By the way the Philadelphia rarely has a native plant focus. But, It is nice to walk among the blooms.

      Getting back to the pollinators…

      Isn’t it fascinating and nice to know, all the native plants we think of as pretty really are hard workers and members of a community? Beauty and utility, how cool is that?
      Donna L. Long recently posted..Naturalist News – March 2011

    • says

      What I didn’t say in the article is that most if not many of the early-spring blooming native plants are bumble bee attractors. But, I tried to highlight the pretty garden flowers we humans like the best and can be easily found in nurseries and at plant sales.
      Donna L. Long recently posted..Naturalist News – March 2011

  6. says

    Great post Donna and that is a lovely shot of a bumble on false indigo. Vivid greens and purples are still something to dream about up here where we still have 2′ of snow out there…your local bumbles all thank you for being such a keen observer to their needs! :-)

  7. Karan Rawlins says

    I went to see trout lilies blooming last weekend here in Southwest Georgia. The native bees were out and about already. They were pollinating the troutlilies but they were also busy with the native wild blueberries which were already starting to bloom. Native blueberries benefit not only the native animals but the gardener as well. A definite win win situation.

  8. says

    That’s a lovely piece. It’s a great reminder to people to provide for our early spring bumblebees, with a lovely guide of what to provide. Nice guide to natives of Delaware Valley too.


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