March 2020: Planting for Queens

American bumble bee on redbud tree, another spring bloomer.

Spring is here! And some of the earliest emerging pollinators are bumble bee queens. Connecticut has 16 documented species of these large, fuzzy members of the Hymenoptera order. The queens overwinter in the ground. They’re responsible for all nest building, foraging, and nursing of baby bees until the first daughters emerge in adult form.

As such, they need all the help they can get with trees and shrubs that flower early. If you’d like to watch these ponderous beauties bob and weave about brilliant blooms in your own yard, here are a list of shrubs to plant:

  • Pinxter azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides) – small shrub, beautiful & early pink and white blooms
  •  Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) – maple leaf shaped green leaves, umbrella clusters of white flowers, fruit for birds, fantastic fall color
  • Nannyberry virburnum (Viburnum lentago) – can grow very large, big clusters of white flowers, fruit for birds, lovely in the fall
  • Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – white flowers with yellow and pink centers, edible fruit, fall color
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) – lovely white flowers, edible fruit, fall color
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – early soft yellow blooms, edible fruit, fall color

On the other end of the spectrum, a fabulous shrub for October through December that supports pollinators as they bed down for the winter is American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). The yellow blooms are fun and exude a pleasant aroma.

Remember to avoid using pesticides – it’s not exactly inviting pollinators to your yard! Native shrubs attract native moths and butterflies, and the little guys snacking on your shrubs are part of the next generation of active pollinators. I once planted three red-twig dogwood shrubs only to have the tiny little things get a few hungry caterpillars. Because the shrubs were so small, they defoliated them entirely. I let it go. The next year, the shrubs grew, the caterpillars came back, and the shrubs were only partly defoliated. The following year, they grew some more, the caterpillars were back, and this time, you didn’t see so much of a difference. As the shrubs continue to grow, the damage will become less and less noticeable due to their size, and the defoliation didn’t harm the shrubs in the long run. They’re now almost as tall as me, and would probably be taller if it wasn’t for the fact that I did some pruning to shape them.

Also, you can be part of community science! Check out Bumble Bee Watch! Try out the app, learn more about identifying bumble bee species, and help scientists keep track of bumble bee populations all over the US.