There is nothing more beautiful than sitting in a serene garden, enjoying the sights and sounds of insects coming and going… birds, butterflies, honeybees, solitary bees and especially bumblebees, seeking nectar and pollen as they move from flower to flower.
Of them all, the bumble bee is a beloved character for many people, partly due to the loud buzzing the bumble bee makes, and also because they look fluffy, cute and sort of cuddly.
Long before honeybees were imported from Europe, Asia, and North America in the seventeenth century, a multitude of native bees pollinated the wild plants as well as agricultural plants. There are now around 255 species of bumble bees that come in many sizes, and only three native bumblebee species are common.
Most bees are solitary. The female bees make their own nests, usually in the ground but sometimes in wooden or natural structures and plants above ground. Bumblebees are native bees. They are covered in lots of black hair and can have bands of yellow, white, or red and the hair can have different patterns by species. They have six legs, pollen baskets on their back legs, a head, thorax, and abdomen, with four wings, and two antennae.
Bumble bees are not aggressive. The queen and worker bees have stingers, but rarely sting. The queen is the largest bee, with her worker bees and male bees being similar in size and smaller than the queen. Males have no stingers.
Bumblebees have a single queen and live in colonies, like honeybees, but they are not organized in hives by humans. They make their nests in tree cavities, wood piles, earth burrows made by other insects and many other similar creative housing solutions. A bumblebee nest only has maybe 250 bees, whereas a honeybee hive may house 60,000 bees.
This 1:39-minute video by Smithsonian Channel shows a bumble bee performing buzz pollination:
A bumblebee nest only lasts for a year, whereas a honeybee hive can last for a decade or longer if well maintained. While honeybees make and stockpile honey, bumblebees only gather enough nectar and pollen to feed the queen and her larvae.
It all begins for the bumblebees when the queen emerges from her winter hibernation in early spring, intent on starting a new colony. First, she seeks nectar and pollen to survive, then she finds a place to establish her nest and begins laying eggs that were fertilized with sperm she stored from the previous summer, which will become female worker bees. She forages for pollen to feed the larvae after they hatch. Once they are adults, they will forage for nectar and pollen and the queen can stay home and lay more eggs and watch her colony grow.
Near the end of summer, the queen lays some unfertilized eggs that will grow into males. In addition, some fertilized eggs are fed more and longer than usual, so they will mature into new queens that will mate and then hibernate for the winter. If they survive, they will start the cycle all over again.
The males leave permanently, going solo to forage, sleep in flowers and seek new queens to fertilize. In autumn, the old queen, workers, and males all die. The new queens are the hope for the future. They hibernate in separate earth cavities, waiting out the winter, so they can establish their own nests in spring, and the cycle begins again.
Bumble bees are generalists, meaning they are not loyal to just one or a couple of types of flowers, they forage gladly on a wide variety of flowers. Some bumble bees prefer certain flowers over other flowers. Some have long tongues and others have shorter tongues. This can influence the types of flowers where they prefer to forage for nectar, although some short-tongued bumble bees are known to rob nectar by biting a hole in the flower tube near the base to drain out the nectar. That is a clever solution.
Bumble bees are most famous for ‘buzz pollination’ which is a unique way they extract pollen from certain flowers that hold their pollen tightly inside narrow anthers and the only way to get it out is to vibrate or shake it loose. Some such plants are tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants. These flowers really make the bumble bee work for their pollen reward. Buzz pollination is when the bee vibrates its flight muscles without moving the wings, while grasping the tubular anthers. When the pollen falls free it lands on the bumble bee. She then scoops the pollen off and tucks it into her pollen baskets, flying it home to the nest.
Bumble bees always enhance a garden, whether it has fruits, vegetables or just some pretty flowers. With their clever antics and fuzzy good looks, they are a joy to behold.