It zipped right, then left. I looked again, uncertain if I’d actually seen anything. I was in my pollinator garden, checking on the next area that needed weeding, when I saw a curious movement: a large insect darting around the blooms of a recently planted deerweed. There it is again! More zigging. More zagging. But what is it?

I waited. I crouched down and kept still. Then the insect lit on the thin branches of the deerweed. Roundish, black, and yellow. A bumblebee! He crawled about, visiting the deerweed’s red and yellow flowers. Big, with lots of fuzz, bumblebees might be the teddy bears of the insect world. I wouldn’t cuddle with one but they make me teddy-bear happy when I see them.

And I was doubly happy to see this bee, as it was the first I’ve spotted in our pollinator garden since we broke ground on the new landscaping five years ago. I like to think the more diverse selection of native plants that I’ve added to the pollinator garden, like the deerweed, played a part in attracting the bee, but the truth is probably more complicated.

My sighting might be a bit unusual as bumblebees have become less common in recent years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which analyses data and tracks the survival of species worldwide, estimates that up to a third of North America’s bumblebee species are in decline. In California, The Xerces Society recognizes five bumblebee species they say should be listed as endangered or threatened.

Like other species in peril, what is most noticeable about the diminishing populations of bumblebees is the decline in their ranges. They have disappeared from large areas. Numbers of a subspecies of the western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis occidentalis, have drastically plummeted. Once one of the most common bumblebees in its range, the western bumblebee’s population has dropped by 84%. The Suckley cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus suckleyi, depends on the western bumblebee to complete part of its lifecycle, so its population has declined as well, falling to 20% of its previous numbers.

Franklin’s bumblebees, Bombus franklini, which are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, already had the most restrictive range of any bumblebee in North America. It was found only in the northernmost region of California and southern Oregon. Bee watchers noted a steep decline in their numbers starting in 1999—and no one has seen the bee since 2006.

I am not the best at identifying insects but I was fairly convinced that the one that landed on the deerweed in my garden was a California bumblebee, Bombus californicus, a threatened species. I was pretty excited about this sighting and set about identifying the insect as best I could.

Over the next two weeks, I saw more bumblebees in the garden. Although the deerweed has mostly blossomed and gone to seed, the toyons were in full bloom, their creamy white blossoms attracting lots of bees, including bumblebees. The hum of hundreds of European honeybees filled the air while I stood near the toyons. Among the honeybees were a half dozen, maybe a dozen bumblebees. After giving them a good eye-over and uploading photographs to, I concluded the new visitors in my garden are yellow-faced bumblebees, a species that is not particularly at risk right now.

Overall, bumblebees are declining because of habitat loss, disease, and pesticides. Global heating is probably exacerbating the situation for many species, too. There are, nonetheless, several things you can do to protect the flying teddy bears:

  1. Plant native flowering plants in your yard. Even just one native bush or shrub can be helpful. You can also provide hollow logs or other places for bumblebees to nest, like cavities under rocks. A water feature can ensure fresh water for the bees and other creatures.
  2. Avoid using any sort of pesticide or herbicide. This includes the glyphosate-based solutions you like to use on the weeds in your patio or walkways. By all means, do not use any product containing neonicotinoids. These insecticides are popular because they are quite lethal to agricultural pests. They are also quite lethal to butterflies, bees, and other helpful insects. Neonicotinoids are bad for people, too. They have been associated with lower testosterone levels and birth defects. Stay away from neonicotinoids.
  3. Become a citizen scientist by signing up with The website is a vast database of thousands of species, not just bumblebees. If you spot a bumblebee, take a photo and upload it to the website. Bee nerds will identify your sighting, and the data you and others generate will be used for mapping, surveying, and conserving bumblebees.
  4. Join The Xerces Society. This nonprofit organization works for the conservation of bumblebees and other invertebrates.

Have you seen any bumblebees? Are you doing any backyard conservation for bumblebees or any other species?

Bonus sighting!

While bumblebee hunting, I ran across this fly. The folks at identify it as Complex Copestylum violaceum, a type of bromeliad fly that I’m trying to learn more about.

This article re-published from The Green Dispatch by Paul Hormick.

Do more for native pollinators and read the companion article from issue 73:

Create Space for California Bumblebees

By Paul Hormick

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About the Contributor
Paul Hormick
Paul Hormick is a horticulturist and environmentalist with a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy. As a freelance writer, his interests are in the environment, current events, music, and the arts. He is the author of As We Believe: Conversations of Religion and Faith. Paul lives in San Diego with his wife, Bryna.