Why Do Bees Have a Favorite Color?
by Sandy Swegel
I visited one of my favorite suburban lawn alternative gardens yesterday. It’s a true pollinator’s heaven of nectar and pollen, right on a neighborhood street. Full of perennial gaillardia and rudbeckia, and reseeding annual larkspur, cleome and sunflower, the garden uses about the same amount of water as your average lawn.
Bees were everywhere. Neighbors stop by in wonder at what can be done with a front yard instead of plain old grass. In the median strips in front of the flowers, kales and lettuces produced greens for the neighbors. This time of year, gaillardia and rudbeckia are dominant with their yellows, oranges and reds. But something different this year was a plethora of purple larkspur. Curious, I asked community urban farmers Scott and Wendy about the variation. They and the landowner are all careful gardeners, unlikely to throw in something different without a reason. Scott explained matter-of-factly, “Well it’s for the bumblebees. They prefer purple.” I was skeptical since I see bumblebees all day on different colored flowers. He assured me they had watched the field the last couple of years. The bumblebees always went for the purple flowers. And walking on the path, huge fat bumblebees were on the purple larkspur, gorging away.
I couldn’t resist a little more research and sure enough, studies in Germany showed that baby bumblebees love purple flowers. Purple flowers are thought to contain more nectar than other colors and that baby bumblebees who chose purple flowers had a better chance of survival…they then passed the purple preference onto their offspring.
I’m not sure what most piqued my curiosity this day…I loved learning that bumblebees like purple flowers best. But I think I was more intrigued by Wendy and Scott just noticing all season that the bumblebees liked one particular color. In the end, though, I’m most impressed with the bumblebees who somehow got the humans to plant their favorite food. Very clever bees.