This has been an unusual year for everyone. One of the things I’ve gravitated to has been learning online about nature, as well as experiencing it outside.
This fall I participated in a 5-week online class about bees in the eastern United States. Now I’m probably like many of you, and at the mention of bees I instantly thought of honeybees and the nasty stings of yellow jackets. But the Eastern Bees 101 class offered by The Ohio State University Extension office has changed my mind. Completely.
Bees are pretty amazing creatures! Let’s look at the bumble bee as an example.
Isn’t she beautiful? This is a Bombus fervidus or a female Golden Northern bumble bee. This is one you don’t see nearly as often as the Common Eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) which is prevalent here in Ohio. Look at how “golden” she is. Her abdomen is yellow on the first four (tergal) segments with just the last two being black. A Common Eastern bumble bee would have just the first abdomen segment that is yellow. In the photos below you can easily count those segments.
And she has a unique black “stripe” across the top of her thorax (the middle part of her body where her wings attach).
Bumble bees live a year or less, depending upon whether they are male, female workers or the queen. They are primitively eusocial, that is…partly social and partly solitary. Their life cycle explains this.
A fertilized queen will emerge from underground in April to early May. She will be by herself. She will feed on pollen and nectar after her winter “nap” and will frequently be seen flying close to the ground looking for a good place for a new nest. She then starts a nest and lays eggs – all daughters. The eggs will quickly turn into larvae, which the queen provisions with pollen and nectar so they may become bumble bees.
Once the daughters go from larva to bumble bee, they are able to forage for food for the nest, and the queen stays in the nest and lays successive generations of eggs. She will lay anywhere from 50 to 300 eggs over the summer (depending on the species of bumble bee).
Queens have the ability to determine whether their eggs will be male or female. In late summer she produces what will be future queens and males. Males will find mates from different colonies and the new queens will mate with males from other colonies. At this point the hardworking daughters in the colony will die, as will the old queen and the males.
Newly mated queens will find a hibernaculum (a place to hibernate for the winter). And next spring the cycle will start all over again.
There is so many interesting things about bees – such as how they carry pollen and nectar, which is different for different bee species. A female bumble bee has what is called a “corbicula.” It’s a smooth indentation in the upper part of their hind leg that is slightly concave. This allows them to carry a mixture of pollen and nectar back to the nest.
The photo below is of a female Common Eastern bumble bee. If you look closely at the leg you can see a slight bit of yellow on the corbicula. Only bumble bees and honeybees have a corbicula. Other bee species may transport pollen on the underside of their abdomen, or on their hairy legs or even eat it and regurgitate it to their young. It varies based upon the type of bee.
I was fortunate enough this summer to be at Clear Creek Metro Park and see a bumble bee “warming up” on a flower. Bumble bees have this unique ability to disengage their wings and operate their flight muscles in order to warm their bodies. Sort of like how we shiver. Bumble bees need to have a body temperature of at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit in order to fly. I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to get a good photo of this to share with you.
And one final item you might find interesting…if you look carefully in the early fall, you just might see some of those male bumble bees “sleeping” on flowers in the early morning hours because once they initially leave the nest, they never return to it. If you ever see a bumble bee “sleeping” on a flower, you can be assured it will, in all likelihood, be a male.
Bumble bees are really pretty docile and aren’t aggressive (unless you threaten them or their nest). The photos in this blog were obtained not by a zoom lens but rather by getting my camera close without being threatening.
I hope the next time you see a bumble bee, you take a minute to look more closely. They’re really very beautiful and interesting creatures.
Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.