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Wildlife Wonders

Bumble Bee Day!

To start things off I wanted to get the spelling correct.  Is it bumble bee or bumblebee?  I already use lower case, as the Wildlife Division does, based on the dictionary.  Back to Google again.  The Entomological Society has adopted the theory of R.E. Snodgrass (yes, that is really his name) as their rule for providing common names for insects.  Snodgrass, author of “Anatomy of the Honey Bee”, states “If the insect is what the name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together”.  Dragonflies and butterflies are not flies so one word, honey bees and bumble bees are bees so two words. 

As I looked at our crab apple tree, that is absolutely loaded with blossoms, I was thrilled to see many bumble bees and honey bees buzzing around collecting nectar and pollen.  I know that there has been a decline in the number of pollinator groups so I wanted to learn more. 

Honey bees, introduced from Europe in the 1600s, are often given credit for being the most important pollinator in many ecosystems, but the reality is that the bumble bees are native bees and a “keystone” species, a species in which other species in an ecosystem largely depend.  They are a keystone species for not only wildflowers, but also for creating seeds and fruits that a great diversity of wildlife depends – from songbirds to bears.  Bumble bees are among the most important pollinators of blueberries, cranberries and clover and almost the only pollinator of tomatoes.  The fact that commercially raised bumble bees are used in growing greenhouse tomatoes could have led to their decline.  A fungal disease was introduced by transporting bumble bees from Europe to the United States.  Habitat loss and fragmentation, pesticides and climate change are also contributing to the fact that one-third of North America’s nearly 50 species of bumble bees are declining.

Of all the pollinators – birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles and flies – bees are the most important pollinator in most ecosystems.  Worldwide there are over 20,000 bee species, 4,000 of them are found in North America and there are 255 species of bumble bees.  Three quarters of the world’s flowering plant species rely on animal pollinators with the others pollinated by wind or water. 

Bumble bees, honey bees and carpenter bees, all in the Apidae family, are social bees that live in colonies.  Other bees are solitary.  The colonies contain 50-500 individual bees.  In the late fall all, except the queen bee, dies.  The queen overwinters just beneath, or on the grounds surface.  In springtime the queen locates an area to build a nest made from dried grass.  The nest is usually located underground in abandoned holes made by rodents.  Some bees use abandoned bird nests or birdhouse, hollow logs or spaces under rocks.  At first the queen will lay only 8-10 eggs, one in each cell, that she will care for.  The queen will make honey by chewing pollen and mixing it with her saliva.  Larva will then create their own cocoons and in 16-25 days will become an adult female.  The queen will then focus on laying more eggs that the female workers will care for.  The female workers will also tend to the queen and defend the nest.  They might sting and bite invaders of their nest or wrap them in honey.  Bumble bees do not lose their stingers, or their lives once they sting as honey bees do.  Males and queens hatch from eggs laid in late summer.  The males, called drones,  have a purely reproductive purpose.  They will disperse to mate with queens from other colonies. 

Larger than a honey bee with short and stubby wings, on a fuzzy black and yellow body, a bumble bee doesn’t look like it would be made to fly very well.  Michael Dickinson, a professor of biology and insect flight expert at University of Washington gathered data using high speed photography and he found that they in addition to beating their wings 130 times/second, instead of flapping their wings up and down, with rare exceptions, they flap their wings back and worth.  This helps them not only fly, but also provide “buzz pollination”, vibrating flowers until they release pollen, resulting in the production of more fruit. Due to their larger size bumble bees also produce more heat that enables them to fly earlier and later in the day and to higher altitudes. 

Bumble bees communicate with others in their colonies by doing special dances about the location of food and if danger is present.  The workers will also bring back a sample of nectar that they will regurgitate.  Other workers in the colony will reject or accept  the nector depending on whether or not they need more.  The term “worker bee” describes someone who works very hard.  One individual golden northern bumble bee visited 44 flowers in one minute competing with others to collect the nectar. 

In 2017 the rusty patched honey bee became the first wild bee in the United States to get federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Historically they had been broadly distributed across the eastern United States and Upper Midwest. They were found in 28 states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces.  Their numbers plunged by 90% in abundance and distribution since the late 1990s and only found in 13 states and one Canadian province.

How can you help?

1.  Provide pollen and nectar for food by planting a diverse native plants that bloom throughout the season.  The nectar provides energy and the pollen provides protein.

2.  Ensure that they have nesting sites by leaving some patches of unmulched soil and brush piles that can be used for nesting areas. 

3.  During hot, dry periods provide water in a shallow bird bath.

4.  Protect hibernating queens by avoiding mowing, tilling or raking until April or May.  If you need to mow set blade at a higher level.

5.  Eliminate pesticides – both herbicides and insecticides, especially neonicotinoids that are taken up by the vascular system in plants.  The poison remains long after applied and is taken up by pollinating insects. 

6.  Become part of Bumble Bee Watch!  Help to gather data so scientists have the data they need to protect the bumble bee that does so much for us.

7.  Continue to learn more about pollinators and participate in National Pollinators Week, June 22 – June 28, 2020.


Bumble Bee Watch

5 Facts About Bumble Bees – and How To Help Them

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

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