May 2, 2010
A Sleeping Bee
This past week two big bumble bees came into our house. These bees were about the size of a cocktail weenie. Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the bee world, as if they had spent hibernation pumping iron and injecting steroids. Much larger than the summertime bumble bees which measure around 3/4 inch long.
There was nothing threatening about these bumble bees. No Terminators, they were not aggressive. Instead, they seemed oblivious. Sleepy and pokey, they bumped into things, and buzzily wobbled into the fluorescents in our office.
We assumed they were some kind of explorer — Daniel Boones assigned with mapping the territory for their siblings back at bee central. But their flight was clumsy and erratic, so how efficient could their trailblazing be?
What was strange is that they appeared to be dying. When they landed, they crawled, slowly, and seemed to shiver, as if they were in the throes of death. In a believed act of kindness, we killed them.
We were wrong to do this. Completely. Utterly. Wrong.
These bumble bees were not dying pioneers. They weren’t even males. They were queens who just woke from their long winter siesta and were hungry for nectar. The girls were also looking for a safe site to call home.
I cannot believe we were so thoroughly ignorant, so stupid, about these hardworking fuzzy friends who have been part of our lives all our lives. And that we murdered them without understanding a thing about them or how much they benefit us.
To save ourselves, and you, from misguided insecticide, here’s the scoop on bumble bees — how they’re good to us, and how we can return the favor.
Queen for a Year
The life of a bumble bee queen is one year, starting with a bit of sex, followed by a ton of working and birthing. In autumn, she’s born, mates with and is impregnated by multiple males. With the first chill, the young pregnant queen finds a sheltered place to hibernate. In early spring, she wakes up starved, scarves nectar, finds a new home, and lays eggs.
In the early stages of building her colony, the queen is 100% responsible for gathering food and caring for the young. As the colony grows, workers take over the grub and kids duties as well as defense. The queen is stuck in the nest, most of her time she’s laying eggs. Later, new queens are produced as well as males. Queen production depends on sufficient quantities of pollen: more pollen = more queens. A male’s sole function is to mate with the queens (woo woo!).
A typical colony at its peak numbers between 50 and 400, consisting of the overwintering queen, smaller males and much smaller undeveloped female workers. They range in size from 1/3 to 1-3/8 inches long, the queen being the largest.
New queens and males leave the colony after maturation; males are kicked out by the workers. They live off nectar and pollen and spend the night on flowers or in holes. The old queen dies in the fall, leaving the cycle to the new queens to begin again.
Bees are our buds
It has been reported that Einstein said that without bees to pollinate our food crops, humans would die off in just 4 years. Experts now say we will die off in 7.
In North America an estimated 30% of people food comes from plants pollinated by bees. Honeybees get most of the credit, but bumble bees pollinate some crops more efficiently than honey bees, bee-to-bee-wise. Bumbles are generalist foragers, meaning that they do not depend on any one flower type, and fly — wings beating approximately 200 times a second — in cooler temperatures and lower light levels, which lengthens their work day and improves pollination during crappy weather. Bumble bees are the chief pollinators of red clover, alfalfa, field and runner beans, peas, tomatoes and in some parts of the country, cotton, raspberries, apple, plum blossom, oilseed rape, sunflowers, strawberries, currants and brambles.
They also do this cool thing called “buzz pollination.” The bee “grabs the pollen producing structure of the flower in her jaws and vibrates her wing muscles, dislodging pollen from the flower. In tomatoes, peppers, and cranberries, buzz pollination results in larger and more abundant fruit....Losses of bumble bees can have far ranging ecological impacts due to their role as pollinators.”
Bye, bye bees?
Several years ago, bee biologists noticed a decrease in the number and distribution of several bumble bee species, including the yellowbanded bumble bee and the rusty patched bumble bee which were once widely seen in northeastern and midwestern North America, including Ohio, and now are gone from most parts of their former ranges.
Scientists don’t know exactly what’s causing bumble bees to die as many factors play a part in their decline: pathogens, pesticides, habitat loss which destroys or reduces food supply and nesting sites, climate change, invasive insects and plants, and air pollution. As populations diminish, inbreeding becomes more prevalent which decreases genetic diversity and increases decline. (I could make a joke here about Appalachian cousins, but I won’t.)
Make a happy home
Our two bumble bees probably overwintered in our foundation. Our brick house has lots of nooks and crannies they could very easily enter. Bumble bees do not have hives like honey bees. Instead, they build their simple and disorganized nests in the ground, in tunnels, in deserted mouse nests, upside down flower pots, used bird houses, under boards, the fiberglass insulation in your attic, and even porch furniture cushions. Neatnik gardeners should hold off destroying what a queen regards as a highly desirable residence.
Bumble bees need lots of nectar from February through November which means lots of flowers; the important thing is to choose a variety of plants that will provide nectar and pollen throughout the growing season. Because they have short tongues, hummingbird-attracting plants aren’t the best for them. Open-flowers with a “landing platform” like roses, asters, and sunflowers are good, as are “symmetric” flowers like sweet peas and foxgloves. In our yard, the Clethra (summersweet) bushes are très popular in July and August.
Those of us who are growing our own produce want bumble bees around. They pollinate vegetables and fruit: zucchini, melons and watermelons, bell peppers, tomatoes, and blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. More than likely, there are additions to this list.
Bumble bees are much more interested in the next flower than they are in you. However, they do have stingers, can sting more than once, and are very quick to defend their nest if they feel threatened. If a bumble bee starts to buzz around you, follow this advice: Don't wave with your hands because you'll only frighten her. Let the bumble bee smell you. When she finds out that you're not a flower, she'll fly away.
This Fall, if you happen to find a living but sleepy queen in a bundle of leaves, leave her in peace. Tuck her in gently and wait a few months for the warmer days to come.
Whatever you do, don’t be stupid like we were.
Thanks to Carolyn for recommending Gregory Corso’s "The Happy Birthday of Death" and to Marilyn for putting a volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins in her pocket on Thursday. And congratulations to Ted for winning the Special! Unannounced!! Find the Intentional Typo Contest!!! in last week’s column. E. E. Cummings preferred e. e. cummings. No caps.