Gardening for bumblebees

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Many wildflowers have become more scarce in farmland, through loss of hedgerows, hay meadows, chalk grassland, and because of pesticide use. As a result, gardens have become a stronghold for some bumblebee species, for they can provide a wealth of flowers. Wherever you live in the UK, you should be able to attract at least 6 bumblebee species to your garden, and perhaps as many at 10. Some of our rarer species tend not to visit exotic garden flowers, preferring native British wildflowers. Many of these thrive and look superb in a garden. They are also easy to grow, generally being hardy and much more resistant to slugs, mildew etc.. than exotic garden flowers. For example viper’s bugloss, Echium vulgare, makes a magnificent plant for a herbaceous border, with spikes of vivid blue flowers up to 2 m (6′) tall. And it will attract a cloud of bumblebees in high summer. Bumblebee species differ in the length of their tongues, and as a result prefer different flowers. For example the longest tongued species, Bombus hortorum , loves deep flowers such as honeysuckle, foxglove and aquilegia. Below is a selection of garden flowers and wild flowers that bumblebees love, and that caters for both long and short-tongued species. If you have room for even one or two of these they will attract many bees. Most of these plants will also attract a range of other interesting insects to the garden, including butterflies and honeybees.  

Wild flowers for bumblebees
The following list is grouped by plant family. There are five main plant families that bumblebees adore:
BORAGINACEAE: the borages
 Viper's Bugloss Echium vulgare , viper’s bugloss   Perhaps the best single plant to attract bumblebees to your garden. Much loved by almost all species, and it looks great too. Does suffer from mildew in damp weather. Flowers June-August.
Symphytum officinalis , comfrey. A familiar garden and wildflower, loved by bumblebees. Prefers damp places but will grow almost anywhere. Also makes great potassium-rich compost. The flowers are quite deep, so that some short-tongued species cannot reach the nectar. Some species, such as Bombus terrestris , get around this by biting through the side of the flower.
FABACEAE: the peas
The pea family includes many wild flowers that are loved by bumblebees. Red clover in particular is a great favourite with many of the really rare bumblebee species, as well as some common ones. It is not particularly showy as a garden plant, although it will grow well in a border. It also does well naturalized among grass if you have room for a meadow area that is only mowed once or twice a year. White clover can even survive well in regularly mown lawns, although mowing needs to be relaxed if it is to flower.
Centaurea scabiosa, greater knapweedDo not be put off by the common name, this is a beautiful wildflower that attracts a host of bees and butterflies. Plants can grow quite large and produce dozens of large purple inflorescences on stalks about 1 m tall.
B. hortorum, a long-tongued bumblebee, feeding on Centaurea
Dipsacus fullonum, teaselA traditional cottage garden flower, growing to 2 m and attracting a range of bumblebees and butterflies.
Digitalis purpureum, foxglove
A very familiar cottage garden and woodland flower, and a favourite with long-tongued bumblebees such as B. hortorum . Some cultivated varieties are said to produce little nectar, so stick to the wild purple type.
 Rhinanthus minor , yellow rattle
Flowering in May and June, this is a plant of haymeadows that has greatly declined in the wild. It is partially parasitic on grasses, so is great to introduce to a meadow area where it will help to prevent grasses taking over.
Odonites vernus , red bartsia
This is not a showy plant, with small purple flowers, but it is loved by bumblebees, particularly some of the rare species. Like yellow rattle, bartsia is a meadow plant and a parasite of grasses. These two species can be difficult to germinate and grow – not for the beginner.
LAMIACEAE: the mint family
Ballota nigra, black horehound
Sometimes known as black stinking horehound, this plant doesn’t sound very nice, but it has attractive spikes of purple flowers and bumblebees absolutely love it. Perhaps second only to Echium in the numbers of bees attracted per plant. A favourite with the very rare shrill carder bee, B. sylvarum  
Lamium album, white deadnettle,
A favourite with common carder bee queens (B. pascuorum) in the spring
Other mint family plants that bumblebees like include: Thymus, (thyme), Mentha (mints), Stachys (woundworts and bettony), Ajuga (bugle)
ROSACEAE: roses and their relatives
Rubus fruticosus, BrambleThis can be an invasive weed if not kept in check, but bramble flowers are favourites with bees and butterflies, and the fruits are delicious and provide food for humans and birds alike.Garden flowers for bumblebeesMany garden flowers are great for bumblebees. Avoid double flowered varieties; these may be showy but the extra petals often make it impossible for insects to get to the nectar and pollen.
Chives and other Alliums,
Delphinium ,
Himalayan balsam (but beware, this is a noxious invasive weed),
Honeysuckle, Lonicera,
Phacelia tanacetifolia,
Purple Loosestrife,
Roses (single varieties are far better),
Sunflower, Helianthus