rusty patched bumble bee on a purple flower

The Basics of Bumble Bee Watching

Published07/27/2021 , by Dr. Zach Portman, UMN Bee Lab

Bumble bee watching is a fun and family-friendly activity that allows people of all ages to experience the joy of fuzzy, lovable bees. It’s also really easy, and you don’t need to be an expert or have any special equipment.

In Minnesota, we have 25 species of bumble bees, of which about 15 can be found in the Twin Cities Metro area. We’re also really lucky to have the endangered Rusty-patched bumble bee present in the area. Although it has declined and disappeared from most of its historic range it can still be found regularly in the Twin Cities. 

An endangered Rusty-patched bumble bee visiting Joe-Pye weed.

An endangered Rusty-patched bumble bee visiting Joe-Pye weed.

While a lot of people may be nervous about bees, bumble bees are rather docile and reluctant to sting. They will only sting if they are getting smooshed or if you threaten their nest. In general, bumble bees are tolerant of people, so you can get close and observe them without bothering them. That being said, they are still wild animals and you should avoid handling them. 

If you’re ready to jump into bumble bee watching, it’s easy to get started. The most important thing you need is a good patch of flowers. Bumble bees visit flowers in order to gather pollen and nectar for their young. Unfortunately, many ornamental flowers produce little or no nectar or pollen, and are instead bred to look nice. The bees will quickly figure out which plants are not rewarding and will avoid them. So you want to find a patch of native flowers or make sure you have ornamental varieties that provide pollen and nectar. 

The best plants for bumble bees are Beebalm. We have two types in Minnesota: Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Scarlet Beebalm (Monarda didyma). They are by far the favorite food of bumble bees around here. Other good plants include Giant Hyssop (Agastache), Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium), and Penstemons. Other native plants can also be a good choice. Big flower patches are best because if there aren’t enough flowers, there won’t be enough pollen and nectar to provide a good meal. In big, mixed flower patches, you’ll notice that bumble bees will often stick to their favorite flower, but will often sample other nearby flowers, just to make sure they aren’t missing out. 

A patch of Beebalm (also known as Wild Bergamot) for bumble bee watching, featuring a Two-spotted bumble bee. 

An excellent patch of Beebalm (also known as Wild Bergamot) for bumble bee watching, featuring a Two-spotted bumble bee.

Identifying all the different bumble bees can be difficult, but you can quickly learn to recognize the common species. Plus, there are many resources that can help people learn to identify bumble bees. A good place to get started is the quick guide to the bumble bees of Minnesota located on the University of Minnesota Bee Lab website. In addition, one of the best websites for identifying bumble bees is; all you need to do is sign up, snap a picture of a bee, and submit your observation. The iNaturalist community can then help identify the bumble bee to species. There are also many people who search for the endangered Rusty-patched bumble bee, and by submitting your observations to iNaturalist, the data can help scientists and conservationists study this declining species. 

Finally, one of the best ways to watch bumble bees is to set up your yard or garden to attract them. This can be really simple, with a few important elements to keep in mind: 

  1. NEVER use pesticides as many are toxic to bumble bees.
  2. Avoid having a super-manicured lawn—bumble bees like a little messiness, especially piles of rocks and brush that can provide a nesting site. 
  3. Plant native plants. They are almost always favored by bumble bees over sterile ornamental plants. 

That’s all there is to it! Good luck watching bumble bees, and while you’re out there, keep an eye out for the other 460 species of bee we have in Minnesota. Many of these are small, shy, and may not even look like bees, but once you start noticing them, you won’t be able to stop.


Learn more about bees, other pollinators, and insects in our exhibition Bugs: Outside the Box, on view now until September 12. 

This exhibition and programs are generously supported by the Farm & Food Alliance of Minnesota and MGK