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June 7, 2012

The Buzzy Life of a Bumble bee

– or, the Busy Life of a Bumblebee, if you prefer.

-by Debra Anchors

Bumblebee and Lupine
Bumblebees have always fascinated me. I am forever amazed at how I can work in the garden close to them, yet the bumblers go about their business as if they know I mean them no harm.

Each fall, at the first signs of frost, a young queen bumblebee will seek out a place to hibernate in security. If you happen to find a live but listless bee in a pile of leaves in late fall, don't touch it; it isn't dying, it’s just in a cold, deep sleep. Put her back where you found her and gently cover her with leaves or mulch against the cold.

A gardener can help bumblebees by planting pollen-producing flowers and by allowing a patch of early dandelions to grow in a field or under a hedge as a food source for the young queens to find. As spring begins to warm, hopefully you will see the queen bumblebees flying industriously and visiting the earliest flowers. The large bees move slowly, as they search for sources of nectar and pollen to convert into honey and wax to feed their hatching larva.

The bumblebee queen will locate a desirable place to build her nest. The most common sites are under the fallen leaves provided in fall, an unused rodent hole, and any cool, dark place such as under the edge of a rock or the wooden floors of sheds or barns. In addition to in and under the ground, bumblebees can be found around patio areas or decks. Sometimes they will choose to build a nest in an attic or under a roof beam. Bumblebees don’t live in large colonies; the nest is generally about the size of a baseball.

A bumblebee queen starts to build her nest with a small ball created of pollen and wax, where she then lays an average of 6 eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larva eat their way through the stored pollen; the adult bumblebees add pollen and wax to nest - continually sealing the larva inside. As the nest grows, the larva changes its skin several times and then stops feeding, entering the pupal stage. The queen spins a yellow cocoon of silk and the grubs emerge a few days later as fully-grown worker bees.

If disturbed, bumblebees will first warn an intruder by buzzing at a loud level, and then will aggressively defend their nests. Bumblebees will sting when threatened, and will chase nest invaders for long distances.

As soon as their wings are dry, the worker bees begin supporting the colony and their bumblebee queen. The queen continues to lay eggs, but since gathering food for the larva progressively requires more of her time, collection of the pollen and nectar becomes the task of the worker bumblebees. The queen spends her time in the nest.

The community continues to thrive throughout spring and late summer, when the nest reaches its maximum size. At that point, the bumblebee queen lays the eggs which will become next year’s queens and drones (the male bees). Once they emerge from the nest, the young bumblebee queens will continue to live and work for their original colony during the remainder of the summer and fall. The drones leave and live independent lives. The one and only purpose of the drone is to mate with the young bumblebee queens and ensure the survival of the species.

Once the temperature drops to frost level, the matured queen, the workers and independent drones will die. Only the newly mated queens will endure by hibernation to begin the sequence again the following spring.

View and listen to more information about the queeen bumblebee by viewing this wonderful video, "Clever queen bumble bees", from Sir David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth.  Sir David Attenborough uses a thermal imaging camera to demonstrate the ingenious way a queen bumble bee heats up in the cold morning air to beat the insect traffic.

Sources of Information and Further Reading:
  • The Humble Bee a book by F.W.L.Sladen
  • About the Great Yellow Bumblebee - Here
  • Photo and caption by Gesa Gustafson
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  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading. Thank you for the effort and interesting info. Bees of all kinds fascinate me.

  2. Really you are great gardener. Your produce food for bees so why the think your harmful for them. Great post.

  3. Great read, and so glad you liked my bumble bee and Lupine photo. :)


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