Everybody knows what bumblebees look like. Fluffy, loud, and buzzy, they are extroverted, fearless, and navigate their world like circus performers. They are almost always gentle unless they feel threatened and are eternally curious.
One of the strangest things about bumble bees is that their tiny, stubby wings not only hold them up but allow them to move in ways that defy the imagination. A study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2005, revealing that scientists had figured out through high-speed photography that bumblebees flap their wings back and forth, not up and down.
Bumblebees are valued pollinators, so if you wish to have a successful garden, call in the bumblebees! They are any gardener’s best friend. The bumblebee is not a solitary creature. There is a single queen in the colony, and she has a good number of worker bees. The colony can grow to anywhere from 50 to 500 bumblebees. They all share chores in a common quest for the survival of the species.
This 7:09-minute video by National Geographic shows how saving bumblebees became this photographer's passion. It is a tribute to the man, Clay Bolt, and the rusty-patched bumblebee, that is now almost extinct:
A new bumblebee queen overwinters alone, and in spring she must find the site where she will base her colony. These insects like to stay close to the ground, and might choose a pile of dead leaves or compost, or an abandoned rodent’s nest. The queen quests for nectar, pollen, and plant wax, then preps wax pots, stuffing them with honey. This storehouse of food will feed her young. She continues gathering nectar and pollen, lays a few eggs, and incubates them. All of this she does on her own. This solitary phase lasts about a month until the first few worker bees emerge and start helping her. They gather nectar and pollen so she can stay in the nest with the young. The queen never sees the light of the sun again.
As late summer arrives, the queen produces a few male eggs and fertile female bees, and once they mature, they are driven away, never to return. The males mate and die. By summers’ end, the original colony of bees all die, including the old queen. The new queens overwinter, and the cycle begins anew.
Bumblebees have evolved one particular behavior that makes them especially useful in the garden. As they seek pollen, they perform ‘buzz pollination’ which means they hang upside down from certain flowers like blueberries, eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers. They contract their wings and shake themselves and the plant to get it to dump pollen on their bellies. The vibration shakes the pollen out.
A few plants that attract and lure bumblebees into your garden are Echinacea, Wild Lilac, Native Thistles, Red Bud Tree, Hyssop, and Monarda. They can’t resist!
If you’d like to learn more about bumble bees, Xerces Society and the US Forest Service are good places to start your search. Look for a citizen's science program like Bumble Bee Watch that you can join and help document the types of bumblebees in your garden, or in your neighborhood. This can be a lot of fun and is a satisfying way to save the bees.