Some good flowers to plant for the rusty patched bumblebee

Zach Portman
6 min readMar 4, 2021

The rusty patched bumblebee (scientific name Bombus affinis), is a fuzzy, loveable bee that has experienced precipitous declines in recent years. It used to be a common bumblebee in the eastern United States, but sometime around the late 1990’s, the range of this species contracted to a fraction of where it used to occur. Nowadays, rusty patched bumblebees are largely limited to an area in the Midwest, occurring in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In 2017, the rusty patched bumblebee was listed as an endangered species, making it the first endangered bee in the continental United States.

I am lucky enough to live in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the places where rusty patched bumblebees can still be reliably found. This past spring and summer, I set out to find as many of them as I could, and I spent over a hundred hours searching for rusty-patched bumblebee around my neighborhood.

Even though rusty patched bumblebees are generalist foragers who visit a wide variety of flowers for pollen and nectar, they have certain flowers that they like best. I noticed that what I was seeing didn’t entirely match up with the official list of recommended plants. This isn’t too surprising, as researchers in the UK recently found that recommended plant lists often don’t do a great job matching up with what bees actually visit.

Before I get to the plants, it’s worth noting this list is not strictly scientific, as it’s more a compilation of my wanderings throughout my neighborhood. This means that my observations were mostly limited to plants people planted in their gardens, so there could be other flowers that rusty patched bumblebees really love but I wouldn’t know since they aren’t planted in my neighborhood. Lastly, I want to give a special thanks to my friend Ian Lane for helping identify the tricky plants.

So what plants did I find the rusty patched bumblebee on? Here’s the list:

1. Scarlet beebalm

A rusty patched bumblebee worker on scarlet beebalm.

Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) was far and away the favorite plant for rusty patched bumblebees in my neighborhood. It was one of the few plants where the rusty patcher could be reliably found, day after day. In some big garden patches, I saw as many as five at a time (as well as many other bee…

Zach Portman

I am scientist who studies bees. My research covers the identification, biology, evolution, and conservation of native bees.