attracting wild pollinators how to

How to attract bumbles to an artificial nest

If you’ve made or purchased a bumble bee box, you are probably wondering where to put it and how to attract tenants. I’ve scanned dozens of documents looking for the secret formula and learned that location is the most important criterion, followed by nesting material. Moisture control runs a close third. Even so, most bumble bee enthusiasts report an average occupancy rate of about 30 percent.

What follows is a summary of all the suggestions I found. I have a bumble house that I purchased several years ago that I use for show-and-tell, but I’ve never actually set it outside. After one more demonstration later this week, I’m finally going to try it. We get lots of bumbles here of various species, so I’m cautiously optimistic.

Location

I’ll start with location since it is important and comprises many variables: [list icon=”check”]

  • According to The Natural History of Bumblebees by Kearns and Thomson, “by far the best site is a south-facing bank.”
  • The box should be placed in full or partial shade. If the interior gets too hot, the larvae will cook. If the box will be in the sun part of the day, morning sun is better than afternoon sun.
  • The box opening should face the morning sun (east or southeast) even if it is not directly in the sun.
  • The box should be sheltered from the wind.
  • The entrance should be at ground level.
  • Other good nesting areas include:
    • Under a hedge
    • At the base of a fence
    • Alongside a garden shed or wood shed[/list]

Nesting Materials

Bumble bees do not collect nesting materials so they select nest sites that are already outfitted with the materials they need. In nature, they often select rodent burrows, birdhouses, leaf litter, or debris piles. You have a much better chance of attracting bumble bees if they approve of your choice. Possible nesting materials include:[list icon=”check”]

  • Dry moss
  • Grass clippings
  • Shredded paper
  • Hamster bedding
  • Upholstery cotton or cotton batting (surgical cotton is too fine and may entangle their legs or wings) [/list]

By the way, if you have a two-chambered box, the nesting material goes in the inner one.

Moisture

A bumble bee may set up a nest only to move out if the nest becomes damp or water-logged. To control moisture, place the nest box on a concrete block and provide an over-hanging roof. You can also drill several small drainage holes in the floor of the box. Be sure the nest location is away from sprinklers.

Due to moisture problems, some people prefer to mount the boxes 8-12 inches off the ground, attached to a fence post or building. This above-ground entrance will work for some–but not all–species of bumble bee.

Forage

The nest should be placed within a half-mile of early blooming plants, but the closer the better. If you put the box in an area where bumbles are common, you have a better chance of attracting a nesting female.

Predators

Secure the box to avoid predation from small mammals such as opossums, raccoons, mice, weasels, voles, moles, and shrews that enjoy a savory meal of bee brood. Ants can also be a problem around bumble bee nests. Bumble bees like a secluded spot, so choose an area away from pets and human traffic.

Timing

In many parts of North America the early queens will start house-hunting by mid-February, as soon as the earliest flowers begin to bloom, so it’s not too soon to set out your box.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

 

44 Comments

    • Nick,

      That is exactly the information I set out to find and I came up blank. I searched and searched for some kind of attractant and found nothing. If you ever hear of anything like that, let me know.

  • Okay, I give. Why would I WANT to attrack bumble bees instead of honey bees? Yes, I understand that bumble bees pollinate other things that honey bees don’t, but honey bees provide honey & are a mostly gentle creature, & while bumble bees may be gentle, they don’t provide honey. So, what really good reason can you provide want to make me choose bumble bees over honey bees?

    • John,

      In order to have a healthy ecosystem, one that supplies us with (among other things):

      Food
      Seed
      Forage crops (clover, alfalfa, lespedeza)
      Cooking oils (safflower, canola)
      Trees (for timber, fuel, recreation, shade, food)
      Fiber crops (cotton, flax)
      Industrial crops (meadowfoam)
      Herbs, spices, fragrances
      Recreation
      Beauty (landscaping, floral design, meadows, forests)
      Soil stabilization
      Water purification
      Medicine and
      Habitat for other animals, we need to conserve all the bees and all the other pollinators.

      And one more thing, who says you have to choose one over the other? It wasn’t me; I have both here, as well as mason bees, sweat bees, carpenter bees, digger bees, cuckoo bees, and on and on. Do I detect a closed mind?

  • Hi Rusty Lemongrass essential oil is analogous/similar to queen phermone, and seems to work quite well as a lure. There is a section on that subject in The Hive and the Honey Bee (the bee bible), but I don’t have my copy available to reference the section for you. I know a beekeeper who routinely uses a mix of lemongrass and spearmint essential oils to lure swarms into his traps. Last year I think he caught four…It’s the same combo in the commercial product Honey Bee Healthy .You only need 1 drop of each!

    • Yes, I am very familiar with lemongrass and other essential oils in attracting honey bees. However, I was trying to find out if any of the essential oils have a similar effect on bumble bees. I can find no references that support that, but will be happy to read anything you can point me to.

  • John – Oh yes, as well, not instead. Bumblebees are severely in decline in the UK (lack of forage and neonicotinoids to blame probably), and pollinate things that honey bees don’t. I kinda got into honey bees for the sake of the species so why not give bumblebees a home too. Least you can do when they work so hard every day helping to make our food and nice flowers for us to look at.

  • Rusty, closed? No, just not open enough to actively pursue catching bumble bees. As mentioned in my 1st comment, I truly do know & understand why bumble bees are needed along with honey bees, I just prefer not to have them nesting in a very close proximity to me. I had a hard enough time convincing my family to let me start keeping honey bees, I would really have to be SUPER convincing to let them allow me bumble bees also.

    While I am commenting, here is my 2-cents-worth on attracting honey bees. I just started beekeeping two years ago, so I still have a lot to learn, but I was able to attract 2 swarms into my hives last year & I believe a lot of it was location & luck.

    I had 1 hive die my 1st winter of beekeeping. They didn’t die of starvation as the top super was completely full of honey when I checked on them in early spring. I, like many people, did a lot of web surfing to find out how to attract a swarm, but came up with no proven way, so I my took dead hive, & removed the full frames & placed 3 sleeves in & 7 new frames in supers & then placed the supers at 4 places were people had told they had seen swarms before. I was able to attract 2 swarms to move into two of them. 1 super remained empty, & the 4th became infected with moths.

    Pure luck, probably, but i am going to try it again next spring.

    • John,

      That wasn’t pure luck, that was a good plan, and I’m glad it worked for you.

      BTW, your family will come around. My husband, who swore he would have nothing to do with my bees ever, now has his own bee suit. You never know.

  • Ok that explains it. I was wondering why bees are so interested in the silk plant I use to hide my satellite dish from the condo board! By accident I have made the perfect artificial honey bee nest. Now time to buy a big can of raid.

  • My family just bought a farm. In one of the barns (where the horses will be) bumble bees have decided to make a hive in the wooden floor. We obviously can’t have them living there. Does anyone know how to naturally get rid of them (not kill them just get them to leave?). We have called a local beekeeper and they didn’t help much. I also read somewhere that sprinkling garlic power would drive them away (Does anyone know if this is true?). Like I said we DO NOT want to kill them, just want them to move elsewhere (If getting a bumble bee box would work that would be fine). Hopefully someone can help! Thanks!!

  • Evening Rusty,
    I was trying to find a place in the ‘Bumble bee Section’ to put these article links and a question relayed to me. So, the links first.

    Two articles, the first link on Bumbler behaviors such as range or as the article is titled, “The use of landscape” …
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130822090035.htm
    This second link on some study of Bumblers taking over bird nests…
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130528092122.htm

    The question is “How to discourage bumble bees from taking over a bird nest?”. This comes secondhand, but the story is about what you might think. Birdhouses being overrun by bumble bees.

    The best thought I’ve had so far was to look at what bumble bees LIKE, as you list out above, and try to put the birdhouses where the birds can use them that are as opposite to what the bees want as is possible.
    That’s all I got.
    You have any ideas?? 🙂

    Nick
    Kent WA

    • Nick,

      For years I have been trying to get bumble bees to move into my birdhouses. I have never succeeded. So tell your friend to start hopin’ and wishin’ for bees in the birdhouse; that should do it.

      Seriously, though, if they are cleaned up every fall, the bees don’t like them as well. They want the nest preformed.

    • Kent–those are great articles. I find the growth in DNA sequencing amazing. Seems like that would be an expensive way to locate Bombus colonies. Too bad they didn’t include a map.

    • “We must remember that bumblebees have survived this long because they are needed.”

      That statement makes no sense. If bumble bees survive because they are needed, why should we worry about protecting them?

  • Bumble bees are important sonic pollinators. Things like tomatoes need bumble bees. Therefore, I want them in my garden. I LOVE tomatoes. I just collected a bumble bee nest from a neighbor. We’ll see how the tomatoes do this year as compared to last year. Here’s a great article to consider…

    http://www.pollinator.com/tomato.htm

    • Werner,

      I do not rear or sell bumble bees. There are companies that do . . . search the web. Check greenhouse suppliers, that’s where they are used most often.

      • Yes, I know. Problem is that in Costa Rica the price for that is really high and the hive don’t have a queen.

        So I’m looking to rear them by myself to pollinate my greenhouses.

        • Werner,
          It would NOT be good to buy Bumble bees to raise in Costa Rica. Bumble bees need cool weather, as can be seen by how many live in alpine and far northern regions. (Texas only has 10 compared to British Columbia’s 37). Also, introducing another invasive species is the last thing your beautiful country needs. Look up the Bumble bees in Tasmania and the problems that has caused.

          As tomatoes and other Solinacea are from the Americas, there must be local bees that sonicate?

  • Hi,

    I too am interested in rearing bumble bees. One of the tricks to getting them established is to:

    1. catch a newly emerged queen in early spring
    2. place her in a confined box which has nesting material preferably an old mouse nest
    3. Add some pollen and some worker honey bees
    4. feed with sugar syrup
    5. when she starts laying open the box

  • I built this little nest for a rabbit that has been sheltering under the adjacent juniper bush. I thought perhaps I could coax him into staying. I don’t think he’s moved in yet.

    After reading this post, I was surprised to discover how close it was to what a bumble bee queen might be looking for. That just so happens to be cotton in the bottom of the hole. Although it gets miserably hot here in Dallas, I thought a rabbit would make good use of it during winter months.

    Any suggestions on how I might create a similar haunt for bumble bees? Would this particular setup work if I reduced the size of the entrance (an armadillo could fit through it now)? Can they really make nests out of cotton?

    The hole is below the frost line, but it is sheltered from rain and at a high spot of the yard. I do believe that it will not get soggy, even during rain storms.

  • I’m looking to build a bumble bee box for my garden and was wondering if it could be mounted on a pole, similar to a bird feeder? Are they not attracted to something off the ground?

    • Deb,

      It depends on the species. Most bumble bee species nest underground, but a few species will nest in birdhouses, mailboxes, etc.

  • Hi liked the article. I read somewhere if the nest doesn’t attract a queen bumble try catching one. Would this work and would you havd to leave it trapped in the box for a few days with food? Or would the queen just fly off soon as open the box?

    • Roy,

      It’s a matter of showing them what’s available, like an estate agent. I just put them in and leave the door open. They either stay or they don’t.

      • I did notice after I asked someone had posted about it. I did try catching 1 once but just flew out. So took it wouldn’t work but after reading I will definitely try again. I’ve bought a bumble hive and nest this year but will have to see next year if they use it again or have to try catching 1. Thanx for the reply.

  • This is an old post, but I’m hoping to get info on carpenter bees… over the last few years I’ve noticed they like a particular table so I gave it to them ? I have a small walk in green house, but I’m just starting it so I have few flowers. DID NOT think about it, but I put their table in my greenhouse. Recently added another light for the bottom shelf plants… they were hibernating but I guess it was enough to wake them up! My first thought was, yay, pollination! However, now I’m concerned they will not have what they need to survive just yet! They just woke up yesterday, but I don’t imagine I have much time to figure one of two things out… 1: Can I supplement their food? Buy flowers, hummingbird nectar??!! 2: move my added light and try to send them back into hibernation. I think it would be amazing to have such a natural little ecosystem in my green house, so the last thing I want to do is kill the little guys… or girls, I’m guessing having been in hibernation. Leave it to me to have such an odd question! Any info would be much appreciated!

    • Jamie,

      I think the best you can do at this point is give them some sugar water in a pan with marbles or rocks so they don’t drown. But I don’t know how long they can survive without the flowers they normally forage from, and it would need to be a lot of flowers. Also, it sounds like they will have no one to mate with except their siblings, which does not produce healthy offspring. It’s probably just an unfortunate circumstance.

  • Can I ask why south? South for me means a lot of traffic and noise and wind since I live at the beach. I had a nest start a couple years ago alongside my west wall, which is more sheltered and quiet. I want to do several spots this year and just hope we can get a nest or two. I love to watch them work and I have lots of native and wild flowers for them so we do get them every year but a nest would be so exciting for kids to learn about them. East side get the nice morning sun and tends to be warmest in my area as afternoons can fog over from cool air clashing with warmer inland air. Any advice on where to put them. Is south more important than quiet and secluded?

    • Micki,

      Do whatever works best in your location. South is usually advised because the bees can see the sunlight peak inside their opening earlier in the day. Often, if the entrance is too shaded, it is late in the day before they actually see the light and come out to work. But it sounds like east would be your best choice, so try that.

  • I was just wondering if you’ve been able to successfully attract bumblebees to a man made nest, or if you’ve been able to capture a queen and convince it to nest in one of your boxes.

    I’ve been enjoying “A Sting in the Tale” by Dave Goulson and is interested in providing a home for bumblebees and other native bees in my yard. I was sad, but maybe not surprised, to read that honeybees tend to out compete native bee populations. While I’d continue to keep honeybees, I would like to do what I can to support native bee populations as well.

    I’m in a small city with a lot of green space and interesting gardens since pesticides was banned several years ago. So I do think the local urban bees have an advantage over living on agricultural land.

    • Selina,

      You are correct that the presence of too many honey bees can harm native bee populations. This is why I encourage beekeepers to plant, plant, plant. That is the best solution for all the bees.

      I have never had bumbles move into a man-made nest on their own, but I’ve put queens into them that stayed. It’s like being a real estate agent—you need to show that what’s available.

      • How do you do that? Do you look for bumblebees queens in early spring and then pop them into your home made nests? Maybe with a bit of sugar water and pollen? Do future queens reuse the nests?

        • Selina,

          I just netted queens and put them in the box. Eventually, one will take to it. The others will leave and find their own place. You have to repeat every year because next year’s queen will not normally choose the same nest.

  • Check out the book, “Befriending Bumble Bees, A Practical Guide to Raising Local Bumble Bees” by Elaine Evans, Ian Burns, and Marla Spivak. Page 25: “Success is more likely with early queen capture. Workers of the early emerging species will be out foraging at the same time as queens of late emerging species. However, these workers will all be noticeable smaller than the queens. Queens with established nests will have pollen loads; thus it is best to capture bees with no pollen loads. Otherwise you may capture a queen who has already started a colony, leaving her offspring abandoned.”

  • Can I have some sizes of the box and what`s inside the box? I would like to make this as I am a carpenter.

  • I have started seeding the whole yard with white clover, and am going to seed ditches in front of the place. Makes a really nice lawn, less cutting, and has an unlimited water supply to water. Have a bumble bee house out with pollen patty and sugar water inside. Ice just left the lake, have not seen a bee yet. Am putting out mason bee houses also with pollen patties and mud. The lawn looks good with all clover. They have micro clover for sale now, which grows real low.

    Thanks for a great site. Lots of good info.

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