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BEEautiful BUMBLEBEES –A Bigger, Better Bee
- by E. A. Zimmerman

There are thousands of species of bees.  Those you are most likely to see are honeybees, carpenter bees and bumblebees.   Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) are bigger than honeybees. They have soft black and yellow “fur,” unlike hairless, aggressive wasps and hornets. Look-alike wood boring Carpenter Bees have a shiny, hairless abdomen and a white triangle on their face, although you might not want to get close enough to check that out. 

Bumblebee, carpenter bee and honeypot with egg mass
Some bumblebees take over bird, mouse or flying squirrel nests, while others use tunnels in the ground. The Queen drinks from the honeypot while brooding her eggs and young which are encased in waxy cells. Once the first batch hatches, workers help with feeding. A colony may have 50-200 bees, which die out in the autumn. Only the new queen hibernates through the winter. Honeypot photo by Bet Zimmerman, Carpenter Bee photos by Keith Kridler, Bumblebee photo from Wikimedia Commons. See higher resolution photo of honeypot and egg mass.

Bumblebees are special for several reasons.

  • Unlike honeybees, they are native to North America. 
  • Because they are bigger and heavier, they can fertilize flowers that other insects can’t.  Monkshood (Aconitum) and Larkspur (Delphinium) depend on bumblebees for pollination. 
  • Different species of bumblebees have different tongue lengths, which makes them versatile. 
  • They can forage at temperatures as low as 41 degrees F.  They will stay at it even when it’s rainy, windy or cloudy, while honeybees snooze away in the hive.
  • Bumblebees also use a technique called “buzz pollination” which releases more pollen from plants, so they are often used in greenhouse tomato production.  Growers pay a hefty sum for these chunky workers. A hive of just 75 worker Bumblebees can cost almost $300, even though they only live 1-3 months.  Bumbles are also efficient pollinators of cucumbers, berries, melons and squash.

Not much is known about the status of our native bumblebee species.   A few surveys done in Illinois and Canada indicate that some species are disappearing, and others are in dramatic decline.  Bumblebees are especially sensitive to habitat loss because of their limited flight range, need for continuous sources of nectar and pollen, and specific nesting requirements. 

Other causes of decline are believed to be monoculture plantings (such as huge fields of a single species like corn) and extensive pesticide use (especially organophosphates, carbamates, pyrethroids, and the highly toxic neonicotinoids that came into use in 1990’s).  Also, commercial bee colonies that escape (e.g., through greenhouse vents) can infect their wild kin with deadly parasites.  One that is common in commercial hives, Crithidia bombi, robs bees of their ability to distinguish between flowers that have nectar or those that do not, so wild bees can starve to death.

About three quarters of all flowering plants on our continent depend on bees or other animals or insects to bear fruit.  Loss of pollinators can have a devastatingly discombulating effect on wildlife and agriculture.  Here’s what you can do to help bumblebees survive and thrive. 

  • Plant flowers preferred by bees, of a diverse mix that flower early (e.g., heather), in summer (e.g., lupine) and late (e.g., lavender and salvia) in the season.  Allow some patches of meadow to grace your lawn, or raise mower blades to allow some clover to remain.
  • Supplement nectar in early spring with a 30:70 mix of sugar and water in a small container like a bottle cap, placed among flowers.
  • Avoid or minimize use of insecticides.  Most of these toxic chemicals do not discriminate between good and bad bugs.  Try Integrated Pest Management techniques when necessary.
  • Don’t kill bumblebees. They are quite gentle, and will usually only sting in self-defense or if their nest is disturbed.  However, like all bees, they should be treated with respect.  For those who are allergic to bee venom, an untreated sting can be fatal. Bumblebees do not have a barbed sting like honeybees, so they can sting more than once.   Male bumblebees and Carpenter Bees don’t have a sting. 
  • If you find a bumblebee nest, no one is allergic to bee stings, and it’s not in a terribly inconvenient place, do nothing.  Growers pay big bucks for these guys – yours are free.  In the fall, when nesting is over, you can examine the nest.  In the meantime, try following bees to see what shape or colored flowers they visit. 
  • Wildlife friendly land use can make a big difference .  If you have a farm, leave some patches of land in a semi-natural meadow state, or rotate row crops with small grains, grasses and legumes.   
  • You can try setting up a nest site, although it might not get used. See www.bumblebee.org/nestboxes.htm for instructions.  Each year, out of about 100 nestboxes on my bluebird trail, I find two or three bumblebee queens that have taken over a bird nest.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Bumblebee.org for much of the information in this article.
Originally published in Villager newspapers newspapers on June 5, 2009

More Interesting Bumblebee (Bumble bee or Humble-bee) Facts from www.bumblebee.org. Also see bumblebee book recommendations.

  • All bees have sucking and chewing mouthparts, and hair-like extensions on their thorax.
  • Bumblebees do not process and store large quantities of honey, which makes them more vulnerable to food shortages.
  • Bumbles are social, but the queen starts a nest on her own (unlike honeybees which start a nest with a swarm in the company of a work force.) Like honeybees, they have a Queen, workers and drones.
  • Some bumblebees "cheat" by cutting a hole in a difficult-to-access flower to drain nectar without pollinating it.
  • Bumblebees visit more flowers per minute than honeybees, and carry big pollen loads.
  • A typical bumblebee range might be 3 miles. The distance they go depends on the species and food availability.
  • A ball of pollen moistened with nectar is called beebread. The queen can survive on this cache of food for several days without foraging during inclement weather.
  • The queen lays 4-16 eggs in a ball of pollen, which she then covers with wax. The eggs hatch in about 4 days. The larva start out milky white and go through 4-5 molts. In 4-5 weeks they become adults. The queen usually lays another batch of eggs while the first batch is in larval mode. The new workers forage so she can hang with the eggs.
  • Girl bees develop from fertilized eggs, boys from unfertilized eggs.
  • Buzz pollination produces large, evenly shaped fruit. The buzzing sound comes from vibrating flight muscles (not beating wings)
  • Male bees are slackers. They just drink, chase queens and may stay out all night long.
  • Mating lasts 10-80 minutes. After the male passes sperm to the female, he plugs her up with a sticky mixture that hardens so not other males can mate with her for about 3 days, to make sure his own genes get passed along.
  • Bumblebees produce glycerol, which is like antifreeze, to keep ice crystals from forming inside during hibernation.
  • Carpenter Bees kind of look like Bumblebees, but the top of the abdomen is shiny and hairless. They are about 1/2-1" long. They have a white triangle on their face. Males don't sting but may act scary. Females rarely sting unless threatened, but if they do, it's potent. Some people call the Carpenter Bee a Wood Boring Bumblebee. Carpenter bees may bore tunnels (with an entrance that is about 7/16" round) in wood. They raise their young inside the galleries. Real bumblebees (Bombus spp.) can not gnaw through wood. They do not use nesting materials like Bumblebees do. They are solitary, and do not live in colonies.
  • It has been several years since anyone saw Bombus franklini in the wild.
  • From Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who's Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically (All You Need to Know about the Insects in Your Garden) by Jessica Walliser:
    • There are 3,500 species of solitary bees in North America
    • 90% of the world's crops are pollinated by insects
    • Apply pesticides after dusk when most pollinators are not active
    • Include umbel-shaped or shallow-lipped flowers in your garden like goldenrods, dill, coneflowers, sunflowers, Joe-Pye weed, zinnias and marigolds
    • To create habitat, delay garden cleanup until spring, leave un-diseased dried plant stalks and material in the garden where pollinators can overwinter.

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