One afternoon last March, one of those early “false spring” days when the sun warms the air up to the low 60s F while there’s still snow on the ground, I hauled the deck furniture out of the garage. Several days of unseasonable warmth had already melted the snow off the deck, so why not? Call me quirky, but I love basking in the warmth of the sun while surrounded by snow.
I was reading a magazine, soaking up the warm rays of the sun, when I heard a loud buzzing behind me. Conall, snoozing on the deck near my feet, also heard it. Turning our heads, we saw a really large bee flying oh-so-slowly alongside of the house, getting closer to us. I imagined I could catch it in my hands if I wanted, it was that big and slow. It reminded me of a 747 or C130, airplanes so enormous it seems impossible they can actually fly at low speeds.
With snow still covering the ground all around, and no flowers or obvious bee food sources in sight and weeks from appearing, I was puzzled. Isn’t it too early for bees?
The bee kept up its reconnaissance, checking out the windows, the side of the house, then me – doing a very close fly by, maybe attracted by the light blue color of my jacket – before moving on toward the door with the dog door. That got Conall’s attention; he did not want this big buzzing menace in the house. In summer, when there are more bees, he snaps at them and chases them in an effort to shoo them away from the deck. Both dogs have bitten bees when snapping at them to scare them off, getting stung, so they really don’t like bees. If they fail at shooing the bees away, they retreat into the house.
But this bee was different. Not only was its size much larger than any bee I’ve ever seen, it’s slow pace and curious investigation of the house were odd. Eventually it landed on a little satellite dish attached to the siding just above the dogs’ door. It appeared to be resting on a metal strut behind the dish. I dashed in the house and grabbed my phone, hoping for a photo, but when I came back outside seconds later, the bee had taken flight again and quickly disappeared around the north side of the house.
I remembered reading somewhere how queen bees survive winter by hibernating underground, and in early spring emerge to search for a new nest. Could it be this bee was a queen searching for a place to build her 2020 nest? So early, while there’s still snow everywhere?
I decided: yes. And given her size and coloring – very fuzzy, mostly black, with bands of yellow – she had to be a bumble bee queen. That was the only reasonable explanation.
I had been visited by bumble bee royalty. It was oddly thrilling.
My Life with Bees
I know little about bees. Given I’m allergic to their sting (most types, anyway), I generally give them as much space as possible. I remember one summer as a kid, when my family was eating dinner on our deck, getting upset when a yellowjacket (wasp) landed on the piece of steak my father had just cooked for me on the outdoor grill. “Don’t swat at it,” he told me. “That’ll only make it feel threatened. Let it take a bite of your steak and then it’ll leave. It won’t eat much.” A live-and-let-live philosophy. Thanks, Dad.
I recognize the importance of bees as pollinators of so many plants we and other animals rely upon for food, so I never kill them (wasps are a different matter if they build a nest above one of my doors). But I purposely haven’t planted any flowering plants inside the dog yard area. Every year, in late spring, someone puts several honey bee hives on a pasture about a half mile down the road, so we always have plenty of honey bees around, feeding on the dandelions in the yard, without me adding additional enticement.
The east side of my house, however – beyond the fenced dog yard area – has been taken over by self-seeding wildflowers with my blessing and encouragement (watering).
Recently, while pulling weeds on the edge of the wildflower garden, I heard some unusually loud buzzing. Taking a closer look, I found two large – but not queen-size large – bumble bees working their way through the columbine and lupine, moving quickly from one flower to the next, one plant to the next, with no obvious pattern (at least not obvious to me). Phone in hand, I managed to get several photos and some video of them going about their task without upsetting them.
I’m paying closer attention to bumble bees now, and loving their presence.
With so many wildflowers currently blooming I’m visited daily by several bumble bees collecting pollen. The buzzing is distinctive and loud, and goes on sunup to sunset. They are, thankfully, fairly docile, tolerant of me walking by them, moving a sprinkler. Live and let live. And they stay on their side of the house while the boys and enjoy the deck on our side. Win-win.
(I’ve paraphrased information gleaned from Wikipedia.)
Bumble bees are typically found in temperate climates. They’re often found at higher latitudes and altitudes than other bees, although a few lowland tropical species exist.
Unlike honey bees, bumble bees don’t overwinter in a hive. Instead, they build nests, typically in holes in the ground. They consume any honey they produce, keeping just a few days’ store. With the arrival of winter, all except a few fertilized queen bees die.
In the early spring, the queen comes out of diapause (a resting state; also known as suspended development) and heads out alone to find a suitable place for a new nest. She builds wax cells in which to lay eggs that were fertilized the previous year. The eggs that hatch develop into female workers, and a few male drones needed to fertilize the next year’s eggs. The drones and workers die as the weather turns cold while the young queens feed intensively to build up stores of fat for the winter.
The bumble bee queen is the first bee species to emerge in spring, as early as February if conditions are right.
One reason bumble bees thrive in colder places is they can regulate their body temperature via solar radiation and internal mechanisms of “shivering,” venturing out when honey bees find it too cold and stay home. The bumble bee’s distinctive fuzzy coat – thick pile – acts as warming insulation in cooler temperatures. Their flight muscles need to be at least 86F (30C) to fly; if air temperatures are cooler than that, they raise their muscle temperature by shivering before attempting flight. If the air temperature is 55F (13C), it takes about five minutes of shivering to warm up enough to fly.
In addition to its warming capacity, the bumble bee’s brightly colored pile is an aposematic (warning) signal to predators that the females can inflict a painful sting. Certain types of flies take advantage of this, imitating the bumble bee’s coloring to deceive predators. (It works; I’ve mistaken those flies for stinging bees countless times.)
Bumble bees have also adapted to flying at higher elevations than other bees. To account for the thinner air, which requires more effort and energy to gain lift, these large-sized bumbling fliers with relatively small wings change the angle of their wing motion to gain lift. Bumble bees are regularly found above 12,000 feet (4,000 meters) and have been collected above 16,800 feet (5,600 meters).
Many bumble bee species nest underground, choosing old rodent burrows or sheltered places, avoiding places that receive direct sunlight that could result in overheating. Others make nests above ground, in thick grass or holes in trees. Their colonies range from as few as 20 bees to as many as 400 (compared to honey bees which can have colonies of up to 50,000).
The female bumble bee workers tend to visit the same patches of flowers every day as long as they continue to find nectar and pollen there. While foraging, bumble bees fly at average ground speeds of 15-20 miles per hour (24-32 km/h) and can fly as fast as 35 mph (56 km/h).
With its ability to “buzz” pollinate by grabbing onto an entire flower and shaking the pollen loose, the bumble bee is for some plant species the only insect up to the task.
And, for efficiency, they have pollen baskets, a part of their hind legs where they store the pollen they collect so they don’t have to return to the nest so often. On “my” bees, the baskets are obvious reddish bulges.
Queen and worker bumble bees can sting, and unlike honey bees, their stingers lack barbs so the bumble bee can sting repeatedly without injuring itself. Best to give them space as they go about their pollen-collecting chores.
Bumble bee populations are in danger in many developed countries due to climate change, habitat reduction or destruction, and collateral pesticide damage.
Bumble bees are important pollinators for both wild and agricultural plants. Once common and widespread, with nearly fifty species in North America, many are missing from their former ranges and some species have disappeared altogether or are under threat, perhaps suffering from similar issues as the honey bees that were originally imported from Europe to pollinate crops (climate change; habitat loss and fragmentation; invasive plants and bees; pathogens; pesticides).
In my area – the Pacific Northwest, including Idaho – scientists, with the help of citizen scientists (a form of community science) are trying to determine why Western bumble bee populations have plummeted. You can learn more about their multi-year study, named the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas Project, here.
Perhaps the best way each of us individually, wherever we live, can help bumble bees thrive is to provide what they need – places to safely nest (no grazing or cultivating) and food to eat (wildflowers and other plants providing pollen and nectar). The planet literally depends on bees. One third of the global food supply is pollinated by bees. A short list: almonds, apples, apricots, avocados, blueberries, cantaloupes, cashews, coffee, cranberries, cucumbers, eggplants, grapes, kiwis, mangoes, okra, peaches, pears, peppers, strawberries, tangerines, walnuts and watermelons. Do you really want to try living without those fruits and nuts? Bottom line: humans can’t survive without bees.
We need bees, not only to have plant-based foods, but also to enjoy the glorious beauty of flowering plants and trees. It’s fairly easy to help them: plant flowering species that sustain them in your garden or in pots on your deck or balcony. They’ll find you, and thank you. And stop using pesticides. Please.
Attracting Bees at My Home
Having learned all this about bumble bees, I’m even more excited to host them on my property, to be able to watch them work the columbine and lupine flowers in my wildflower garden. I didn’t set out to feed bees when, years ago, I tossed rather expensive mountain wildflower seed alongside my driveway. I simply wanted to bring some the spring beauty of the wildflowers I enjoy seeing in the forest closer to home. Little did I know that with time and patience – and water – I managed unwittingly to provide abundant food for bumble bees (and hummingbirds), helping them thrive in my neck of the Idaho woods.
I like to think that these busy worker bumble bees – females, mind you – I’m now watching pollinate my wildflowers grew from the fertilized eggs carried by that buzzing, ambling, enormous queen bee who dropped by for a quick visit in March before finding a good nesting site nearby. No wonder she was moving so slowly; she was carrying a heavy and very precious cargo.
In closing, here’s a fun rendition of the famous classical piece, The Flight of the Bumblebee, an orchestral interlude written in 1899-1900 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. (Presentations usually features a solo violinist 😊)
Note: My quick research shows that entomologists prefer to use “honey bee” and “bumble bee” – two words, rather than the commonly seen “honeybee” and “bumblebee” so I opted to use the two-word names here.
Feature photo: a bumble bee worker gathering pollen from a columbine flower in my wildflower garden on June 3, 2020.