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Pity the Poor Bumblebee

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T

he present populations of our western bumblebees are in big trouble, which from my perspective is more important from the biological and ecological perspective than the problems facing domestic honeybees.

I've been a beekeeper most of my adult life. I love having domestic bees in my immediate vicinity. Of course, I love the honey they produce, but perhaps more than that, I love their lifestyle.

There's nothing that brings warmth to my being like coming up to a beehive at 31 below zero, putting my ear to the hive and listening to the warm humming of the bees inside keeping the queen warm and snug, at 90 degrees.

In the fall, it's so sweet to remove the "super" (the box filled with my honey) from the top of the hives, thanking the "girls" for the honey and their contribution to my health and happiness.

But all that's gone from my home today. I've given up the love of beekeeping to give our western bumblebee the help they need. If I had more pollinating plants at my place, perhaps I could keep domestic honeybees and have enough habitat for "my" bumblebees, but at the moment, I don't.

I think my Uncle Moulton Alexander Rockefeller—the man who introduced me to honey bees when I was about 12—will look down on me from his present domicile out among the stars, and smile in agreement with my decision.

Uncle Moult was my grandfather's brother who lived in the hired man's house on our small farm in Connecticut. He ate with us, but other than that I didn't know (or actually care) much about him... until that day he asked me to help him capture a swarm of bees.

"Swarm of bees," only meant one thing to me then: death. But for some reason, my curiosity made me stop and listen. He said a swarm in an apple tree had no place to call home, and because of his age he could no longer gather the swarm on his own. I helped him carry the ladder and Langstroth bee box to the orchard. He instructed me to climb the ladder with a cardboard box and saw, removing the limb with the swarm (without being stung once!). I let it drop into the cardboard box and came down.

He removed half the frames with the wax foundation from the box, dumped the bees into the hive and then, bare-handed and without any protection from being stung (except puffing away on his nasty old pipe like a steam locomotive), slowly searched among the bees to find the queen and her entourage.

Then he put her back in the box, replaced the frames, closed it up, smiled at me and said, "Now, Catsfur, watch what happens." What took place is what I enjoy most about installing a swarm. Several of the workers lined up at the entrance and beat their wings furiously, not to take flight, but fanning the fragrance of the queen's pheromones outside, so other bees flying about would know where she was and find their new home.

T

he bumblebee life story is quite a bit different. To begin with, only one bumblebee survives winter: the queen. There are no workers to help keep her warm. She's all alone, hiding under an old log, or buried in the soil of a south-facing hillside or bank, hibernating to keep from freezing, waiting for spring when she'll emerge and lay eggs.

She mated with a drone (male bee) in late summer of the previous year, and she hasn't eaten anything since then. This is why it is vitally important for bumblebees to find early flowers on which to feed.

Newly emerged queens eat both nectar and pollen, and it's the pollen that helps her ovaries develop—but she cannot fly unless her flight muscles are at about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, so she has to brave the cold weather to feed or else she will sink into torpor and never wake up. The queen continues feeding and sheltering at night near the food plants in old rodent borrows, or under logs for a few weeks until her body signals it's time to find a nest site.

This is the reason we must be sure there are early pollinating flowers blooming, like the lowly and much unloved dandelion. People who use herbicides to kill dandelions are just one of the reasons our bumblebees are in big trouble. Not only is the bumblebee's food removed, but residual chemicals are contaminating their (and our) world.

Once the queen's ovaries have eggs starting to form, she starts nest-searching. Deserted small rodent nests are favorite nest sites, but clumps of dead grasses, empty woodpecker holes, cracks in old, rotten logs and even outside furniture can become a nest.

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Once a queen has found a suitable site she builds a wax honey pot and fills it with regurgitated nectar—honey. Next, she builds up a store of pollen, some of which she eats, and the balances he makes into "bee bread." She issues saliva mixed with pollen, and it is believed that the saliva provides some protection against spoiling by fungi and bacteria. If you're fortunate enough to observe a bumblebee queen in the act of carrying pollen in her pollen baskets, you know she's found a nest site and is preparing to lay eggs. The store of pollen, nectar and bee bread enable the queen to survive for a day or two of bad weather without foraging, which in our part of the country is vital.

The pollen stimulates the ovaries to produce eggs, which the queen lays in batches of four to 16 on the ball of pollen, then covers them with wax.

The eggs are pearly white and sausage-shaped, about 2.5 to 4.0 mm long. The ball of pollen with the eggs is placed within reach of the honey pot thus enabling the queen to brood the eggs and drink honey at the same time.

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fter about four days the eggs hatch. The queen may have to visit as many as 6000 flowers per day to get enough nectar to maintain the heat needed to brood her eggs. During every foraging trip the brood will cool down, so the trips should be short.

When the eggs hatch, the queen must make thousands of trips per day to feed her growing larvae.

The grubs are voracious, but do not defecate. The end of their gut is closed, so all the waste material remains inside the larvae; thus, the larval cell and food remain uncontaminated with waste. The waste is expelled while the grub is in the pupal stage, the feces staying within the throw-away cocoon, but not wasted. In case you wondered, nothing is EVER wasted in nature!

The feces is smeared on to the inside wall of the cocoon, becoming part of the silken structure. That helps keep it rigid so the new insect inside—now with three body parts, six legs, and other necessities of an adult insect—is not crowded.

Entomologists have discovered by examining the feces in the cocoon's pollen husks they can identify which flower species the adult bumblebees have been foraging from.

New queens and drones are produced at a later stage in the life of the colony, as winter is approaching. Somehow, fertilized larvae develop into queens when the queen stops secreting a certain pheromone. Once that queen that will survive the winter is selected, the others succumb to the elements of winter, and the surviving queen goes looking for a place to hibernate and survive winter. What a story!


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