I ❤️ Bumblebees

I make a concerted effort to attract bees and other pollinators to our garden. This year, I spent a little more time trying to entice bumblebees to nest in the yard. I already supply a continuous food source during the growing season but I read up on what a bumblebee needs for a nest.I saved dried leaves and grass, and in a corner behind a fence where the soil is dry and shady, I piled the grass clippings and leaves early in the spring. And, lo and behold, one day I watched a large bumblebee arrive, zigging here and there, flying around and around the leaves and fence for a couple of days in the cool spring. At first I thought it may be a carpenter bee attracted to the wood fence but, no, this plump bumblebee was eventually crawling around the leaves. She was a bumblebee queen!

She liked the site I prepared and she proceeded to build a nest, lay eggs and, raise her young. Now, late summer, we have a population explosion of beautiful bumblebees that forage from dawn to dusk. We watch them fly in and out of their cavities in the ground. The nest has been enlarged and there are different entrances now… the main entrance now just a foot from the faucet and hose, but they are unconcerned by my presence. I never bother the nest and they just buzz around me and on to the garden.  In and out, in and out, all day long.

I work along side the bees in the garden. They fly around me, move when I’m tending to a plant, land on me, rest a bit, then fly to the next flower. No stings!

Bumblebees need a continuous food source and we supplied a gap-free nectar source in our bee friendly garden. Bumblebees do have a preference for certain flowers and we took notice and made sure we had enough of their pesticide-free favorites all growing season.

The bumblebees pollinated our blueberries, were all over the clover, and the only pollinators I saw on our tomatoes. They loved the early crabapple and rhododendren blossoms, the summersweet, the allium, hosta blooms, hydrangea, and all the herbs in bloom. Right now it’s all about the garlic chives and Russian sage, but any moment, the showy flowers of Aralia ‘Sun King’ will open and it’s goodbye chives!

It’s been a “buzzy” summer garden but the season is winding down and changes will be taking place. Only the newly mated females will survive the winter, usually beneath ground. The rest of the colony will die later this fall.  Next spring, I’ll try again to encourage another queen bumblebee. It’s been an adventure and it feels right to give a helping hand to a bee that is facing many threats… from habitat loss, pesticides, climate change and disease.

When is a bumblebee not a bumblebee?

Bumblebee on Bluebeard shrub

The answer: When it is a moth.

True bumblebees are all over my bluebeard shrub (Caryopteris ‘Blue Mist’) and all over any late blooming flower in the garden, honeysuckle, lantana, butterfly bush, wild ginger, asters, etc. If you’re weeding nearby or just admiring the insects, you might spot one ‘bee’ that is not like the others. The black and yellow colors seem right but this odd bumblebee will hover over the flower while it feeds unlike the other bumblebees that bump and collide and crawl over blooms to feed.

This odd-looking bee is not a bee at all. It’s a Bumblebee Moth, a Snowberry Clearwing Moth, Hemaris diffinis, and it is a pretty darn good bumblebee mimic. You’ll see it flitting around the garden feeding during the day just like the bees. Any predators should recognize the familiar yellow and black warning pattern and steer clear of the potential sting.  Except this little yellow and black moth is completely harmless. It’s simply a moth.

Snowberry clearwing bumblebee moth

The caterpillar of the moth is pale green on the back with darker green along the sides. There are numerous flecks on the body and a horn of bright yellow at the base with a black tip on the top. Although related to the tobacco hornworm, this bumblebee moth caterpillar will eat the snowberry,  honeysuckle,  and cranberry viburnum…. NOT your tomato plants! Be kind to these caterpillars.

Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillar

Interestingly, the snowberry plant, Symphoricarpus albus, that gave the insect its name is a hardy deciduous plant in the honeysuckle family that was brought back to the east with the Lewis & Clark expedition. When it reached Thomas Jefferson, he was enthusiastic about the plant with the lovely pink blooms followed by large pure white fruit, and penned “some of the most beautiful berries I have ever seen.” It’s deer resistant, great for cut flowers, likes shade and these little bumblebee moths like it. That’s all the persuasion I need. I think I must have a few snowberry plants in this garden next spring…. perhaps in the shade of the new secret garden!

Ann Hohenberger, the Garden Club of Gloucester