Bumble bees — what is all the buzz about?

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Photo by DON BARTLING The bumble bee is a widely distributed social insect known for its ability to collect nectar from flowers and pollinate plants. These two bumble bees are collecting nectar from a crocus flower.

“To make a prairie it takes clover and one bee, one clover, and a bee, and revery. The revery alone will do, if bees are few.” — Emily Dickinson

Bumble bees — those fat, fuzzy fliers — are fascinating creatures. They’re also very hard to study as are most animals that can fly away at any moment. I was fortunate to see two bumble bees in a flower recently and buzzing around in my front yard.

The fat, furry, black and yellow form of these bees is familiar to everyone. Bumble bee colonies contain queens, drones (males), and sterile female workers. All species nest in holes in the ground, often in abandoned rodents’ nests. They construct a waxen comb in which to rear young. Only queens survive the winter, and these produce the first generation of workers on their own early in the spring.

The bumble bee is a widely distributed social insect known for its ability to collect nectar from flowers and pollinate plants. Bumble bees are large yellow and black flying insects with a distinct buzz. There is a variation in coloration among bumble bees and some species have bands of red, yellow and black. They have stocky bodies that are covered with many hairs to which pollen adheres.

Bumble bees have four wings, the two rear wings are small usually attached to the fore wings by a row of hooks called hamuli. The wings move rapidly, at 130-240 beats per second.

Bumble bees are social insects that live in colonies. The queen bee, drones and worker bees all have specific tasks to help support the colony. The queen bee lays hundreds of eggs. The male drones’ main function is to be ready to fertilize the queen. Worker bees do all the different tasks needed to operate and maintain the hive.

The average mass of pollen and nectar carried by bumble bees returning to the nest is around 25 percent of their body weight. However some bumble bees fly back carrying as much as 75 percent or more of their body weight.

Foraging bumble bees tend to avoid flowers recently visited by other bumble bees, although they will visit the same patch of flowers. Bumble bees will scent mark the flowers — leaving behind a message to others that the nectar is gone. The scent is secreted from a glad in the bumble bee tarsus (part of the foreleg). Scent marking reduces the time spent probing flowers without nectar.

Often times people ask “Do bumble bees sting?” Well, bumble bee workers and the queens can sting, and their stinger is smooth — not barbed like that of the honey bee — so they can sting more than once. Male bumble bees cannot sting as they do not have a stinger. A honey bee can sting once, since the stinger has barbs, and it will rip off and stay in the victim’s skin.

The bumble bee queen emerges from hibernation in spring and finds a nest site, such as an abandoned rodent burrow. She creates wax pots to hold nectar and pollen, in which she lays and incubates her eggs. When the queen bumble bee’s daughters emerge as adults, they take over foraging and other duties. In the autumn the colony produces new queens and male bees, who leave to find mates. Newly mated queens hibernate and the rest of the bees die.

Bumble bees do make a small amount of honey, just enough to feed the colony for a couple of days during bad weather. This differs from honey bees, who make large amounts of honey so the entire colony can survive the winter. Since newly mated bumble bee queens hibernate, they do not need the vast quantity of honey found in honey bee hives.

Get outside and enjoy the beauty of Boundary County in the spring!

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