City Cast

A Primer on Native Bumble Bees

Blake Hunter
Blake Hunter
Posted on September 29, 2022   |   Updated on June 15
While we might think a lot of bees look similar, even species of the same genus can have nearly opposite color patterns. (Jim Cane / USDA Agricultural Research Service)

While we might think a lot of bees look similar, even species of the same genus can have nearly opposite color patterns. (Jim Cane / USDA Agricultural Research Service)

As more lawn-owners tire of monotonous, burned grass and high water usage, they’re turning to xeriscaping (including our producer Jennifer Jarrett — listen to her episode of the pod on xeriscaping).

A benefit of xeriscaping is that native plants bring native pollinators to what might have previously just been another grass lawn, a gentle but firm reminder that this is not Kentucky bluegrass’s home, but theirs.

And while there’s a lot to learn about pollinators, I’m fascinated by our native bumblebee populations, so let’s start there.For starters, 80% of bees native to this region don’t live in the big, honeycombed hives hanging from trees that remind us of “Winnie the Pooh.” They live underground — some bees live in solo dwellings, but bumblebees, who are members of the Bombus genus, all live in colonies.

They often opt to occupy abandoned rodent holes for their underground “nests” for a reason that I find slightly unpleasant: rodent dwellings are often warmer than other underground cavities because they’re lined with fur. Think about that textural experience for a second.

Native honeybees have some disadvantages to their European counterparts who have colonized the U.S., including their annual life cycle, meaning the colony’s founding queen and all the other bees die during the fall and early winter. Right now, next year’s queen bees are hatching, and will hibernate through the winter before creating their own nests in the spring.

Within the Bombus genus (bumble bees), there are over 250 species. There is a ton of information out there about all of them, but here’s a visual to identify a few of the most common ones we have based on their coloration, all of which you can learn more about.

For example, I just found out that one of them, the white-shouldered bumble bee (Bombus appositus) likes tall fringed bluebells, one of my favorite native flowers.

You can participate in tracking native bumblebees online, and figure out some plants that native pollinators might like to find in your yard. Even if you’re not ready to rip out your whole lawn — or like me, you don’t even have one — you can still help out native bumble bees as they fight climate change and keep our ecosystems alive.

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