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Native pollinators: bumble bees

When I think of cartoon insects, I think of bumble bees. They invariably have bold black and yellow stripes, wide bodies, and a big smile on their faces. You can even buy costumes for your pets, your kids, or yourself that loosely resemble a bumble bee . . . although I’m not sure why.

In truth bumble bees rarely smile, they are more hairy than fat, and they come in a variety of colors. Some are all black, while others have stripes that are lemon yellow, orange, dark rust, red, or white. Stripes may be wide or narrow and vary in number. Bumble bees are easy to recognize because they seldom wear costumes resembling dogs, cats, or kids.

Bumble bees belong to the genus Bombus. They are in the same order (Hymenoptera) and same family (Apidae) as honey bees and, indeed, they have a lot in common. The known bumble bees are divided into 250 species, most of which are found in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. About 50 species live in North America.

Like honey bees, bumble bees are eusocial, meaning they live in colonies with a reproductive queen and cadre of sterile female workers. The nest of bumble bees is usually found underground and consists of perhaps fifty workers.

At the onset of winter both the female workers and the male drones die. The mated queens overwinter by finding a protected spot and holing up for the duration. Then, in early spring, those queens find a suitable nest, provision it with pollen and nectar, and begin a new colony. The solitary queen does all the work by herself until she has enough female offspring to take over raising the young. Once that happens, the queen stays in the nest and continues to lay eggs.

Within the confines of their nest—often a recycled rodent burrow—the bees build wax comb in which to store food and raise brood. The wax nest is irregular in shape and is often tucked into a soft, warm berth of straw or animal fur.

Bumble bees collect nectar and pollen for the young, carrying home large pellets of pollen on their rear legs. Bumble bees visit many flower types and are efficient pollinators, often pollinating flowers that other bees can’t manage. A famous example is the tomato, which needs the powerful vibration of a bumble bee’s wings to free the pollen from the flower.

Although there are many species of bumble bee, most of the species do not have a wide distribution. As a result, habitat destruction, urbanization, and intensive agriculture have put many species in danger of extinction. Pesticide-free agriculture, urban plantings, hedgerows, and habitat strips can give a boost to declining bumble bee populations.

For the most part, bumble bees are docile as they forage from flower to flower, but they can become aggressive and territorial if their nests are disturbed. Enjoy them from a distance and leave their nests alone if at all possible.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Bumble Bee. Flickr photo by Stephen Jones.

Comments

Heidi
Reply

What great information. I really enjoy reading your blog!

Rick
Reply

I love bumble bees. Where I live, everyone were misidentifying carpenter bees and bumble bees.
In trying to find out more about these curious and amusing insects that will seemingly come right up to you and say, “Hello. Who are you?”

We have both white-face and black-face carpenter bees. While these bees bore holes in the eaves of buildings they do little damage and can be easily controlled as they won’t bore into painted wood. I have one that has taken up a territorial area at my front steps and every morning he or she comes up to say hello and watches me put on my shoes and get ready to go to the garden. Sometimes getting quite close a foot or so from my face and hands. From that distance their stinger is very clear but these are very docile. I am a little more cautious about Black-face bees as they are more aggressive, but they don’t get as close and are not as curious.

Rick
Reply

By the way, the main distinction between bumble bees and carpenter bees visually is the abdomen of the bumble bee is hairy like the rest of the body and carpenter bees have a hard and shiny abdomen and a hairy body.

Tim
Reply

Rusty, I have 50 plus blueberry bushes within 50 feet of my three hives and have never seen one of my honey bees on these bushes. The bumble bees hang upside down on the blooms and do all the polination. Why do my honey bees ignore the blueberry bushes? I have also noticed what looks like a small bumble bee on these bushes and was told they are Southeast Blueberry bees. Any thoughts?

Tim

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

Blueberries are usually pollinated by native bees, including bumble bees, alfalfa leafcutters, some of the Osmia (mason) bees, and many others. Certain Osmia species are known as Southern blueberry bees or Maine blueberry bees, etc. However, certain varieties of largely self-sterile blueberries are pollinated by honey bees. Since native pollinators are becoming scarce, more and more of these self-sterile varieties are being grown specifically so they can be pollinated by honey bees.

One of the problems is that many blueberry plants have flowers that are too long for the honey bee to reach into. Since they can’t reach the nectar, they are not interested in the flowers. But the flower structure varies quite a bit between varieties, which is why some will get pollinated by honey bees and some will not. So if your blueberry bushes have the “original” deep flowers found in most blueberry bushes, your honey bees will continue to ignore them.

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