As autumn rolls in, wildflower season comes to an end in many parts of the world. Seed heads form, petals and leaves wither and drop, with the exception of plants that thrive at this time of year like asters, goldenrod, and black-eyed Susans.
Bees are still buzzing around, despite the changing weather that brings more wetness and chill to the air. Thin, watered-down sunlight still carries a touch of warmth, which is appreciated by bees and all sentient beings.
Bumblebees have a fascinating cycle that kicks in around this time of year. The end of their lifecycle is rapidly approaching. They all die, except for the new queens that must find a place to settle in and survive the winter.
Like honeybees, common bumblebees (Bombus impatiens) form a colony, but it is much smaller. Native bees rarely form such colonies. Only one queen rules, and usually from 50 to no more than 500 worker bees live there, compared to 50,000 in a honeybee hive. The queen, at 17mm or more, can have a yellow mane of fuzz that distinguishes her from her worker bees. Female common bumble bees are usually no more than 16mm and have black faces. Males have yellow goatees.
The old queen is weary, having laid eggs all summer. The first batch she fed and raised all on her own, but five weeks later those eggs hatched from larvae and evolved into adults. They then took over care of their sisters, and successive adult bees care for the newest groups coming up behind them.
All the way through until a certain unidentifiable point in late summer or early fall when the purpose of the colony shifts. It is then time to raise new queens that have the capacity to survive the winter.
This 4:46-minute video by Dave Goulson tells the lifecycle of bumblebees:
Suddenly, the old queen starts laying unfertilized eggs, after laying fertilized eggs everyday all summer. It may be the changing weather, or an inner impulse that tells her to enter the new phase. These will become male drone bees, and their job will be to fertilize females from another colony before they die.
Once she lays the unfertilized eggs, the queen stops producing a particular pheromone. Once that scent fades away, the worker bees shift attitudes as well, and start raising the remaining fertilized eggs as new queens instead of the usual female worker bees.
The entire process is like a domino effect, but orchestrated as if to a divine plan, or a pattern of activity deeply engrained somewhere within their very cellular memory.
Worker bees forage in the frosty weather for final provisions for their colony, although death moves closer to them all with every wing beat. Sometimes a colony starts too late, and they are unable to get the job done before they die of starvation or freeze to death, and no new queens or drones emerge.
Reflect on the thought that a new queen must stuff enough nectar and pollen into herself to add enough blubber to her frame to survive the winter alone in hibernation mode and find a sheltering spot that will help her survive. Her existence seems to be like rolling the dice. The new male drone, in comparison, must just mate once, and die, which seems a lot easier than what the queen must endure. The survival of her line is entirely on her.
Honeybees, in comparison, have it much easier than bumblebees. Honeybees snuggle and huddle in a ball in their hive with stores of honey to see them through. The lone bumblebee queen will seek a shallow burrow with plenty of fallen dead leaves and a blanket of snow to insulate her temporary home.
This is a nudge, a gentle reminder, to please not clean up your garden too fast. Your garden debris can help countless tiny critters to survive the winter.
The last worker bees of the summer colony slow down as the weather grows worse. Their muscles are paralyzed by the chill. They cling to the flowers, motionless, and sometimes they die right there, with the flowers they loved so well.
Autumn is here, and winter is coming. What are you going to do to help bees survive? If you have no idea, now is the perfect time to figure it out.