When I became a Volunteer Naturalist several years ago, I imagined birds would become my passion and primary area of interest. And they did, for a few years. (Although I have to admit they still do when it comes to colorful migrating warblers or seeing fledgling Eastern bluebirds in the spring.) Then I thought perhaps plants would become my focus, as I love spring wildflowers and colorful perennials which attract pollinators and butterflies. But what has really garnered my attention surprisingly is native bees.
When the word “bee” is mentioned most people tend to think of honey bees or the pesky yellowjackets which are everywhere in the late summer/early fall. Honey bees are actually native to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. They are not native to the U.S. And yellowjackets? They’re not a bee, but rather are a type of wasp.
So what are native bees you might ask? Well there are probably about 400 to 500 bee species native to Ohio. And there’s a wide variety of them, from the tiny little iridescent sweat bee…
to the large bumble bee, which is big enough you can’t miss it.
Bumble bees are generalists. That is, they obtain pollen and nectar from a variety of plants, which is a good thing as it helps supply them with food from early spring into fall. You will often see them fly from flower to flower, generally staying with the same species of plant rather than to just any flowering plant in front of them. I’ve heard that is because it is easier to remain with the same flower type (on each pollen/nectar run) to make it rather “mindless” to find the pollen and nectar but I don’t know if that’s true.
Unlike honey bees which can overwinter in hives and survive for sometimes several years, most bumble bees have a short lifespan in comparison. Queens can live generally a year, while worker bumble bees may only survive 3 to 6 weeks depending upon their job within the colony and their species.
The lifecycle of a bumble bee is quite interesting and truly amazing. In the fall, a mated queen will seek shelter underground, where she will go into a type of hibernation for the winter. All by herself.
In the spring, she will emerge when the temperature is warm enough. She will feed on pollen and nectar to gain her strength, then she will roam just above ground level seeking a suitable structure for a nest. Perhaps an old rodent nest, in leaf litter or near old logs. She will make tiny wax cups of pollen and nectar (pollen balls) and then lay an egg on each one. She will warm the eggs with her body so they will hatch within a few days and become larvae. The larvae will feed on the pollen ball. During this time, the queen is on her own. She has to seek pollen and nectar to feed herself, protect the nest from predators and incubate the brood.
The larvae will go through different stages before spinning a cocoon and metamorphizing into bumble bees. All of them will be female worker bees. The queen will continue laying eggs while the new worker bees go out to seek pollen and nectar for the colony.
Once the queen has enough worker bees, she will cease to go out and will remain on the nest producing eggs. Her workers will take care of feeding and maintaining the nest. They will keep new eggs warm so they can hatch. They will clean the nest of debris, as well as protect the nest from predators. And they will find nectar and pollen to bring back to the colony. It’s easy to understand why worker bees live a short life. It’s a tough one.
The nest may only have 50 to 300 bumble bees in total. In comparison, honey bee hives can contain upwards of 40,000 bees or more!
While queens are fertilized in fall before they hibernate for the winter, the queen has the ability to determine which sex they want their eggs to be. This allows them to lay eggs in the spring that are all female worker bees. And in late summer the queen produces eggs that are both male (drones) and female (gynes) which will become new queens.
The new queens and the drones will fly off to find a mate from other bumble bee colonies. After mating, the drones, the original queen (which started the colony) and any remaining worker bees will die. The newly mated queens will seek suitable shelters to hibernate through the winter — each of them totally on their own. Come spring, the cycle will begin anew.
Yes. Pretty amazing creatures.
Bumble bees are very docile. They generally only sting when they’re threatened. I’ve gotten my cell phone camera pretty close to them without harm (as these photos show), though I try to not to be a pest. They are, after all, just trying to survive.
There are about 30 species of bumble bees in eastern North America, although only about 10 are considered common. The most often seen bumble bee in Ohio is the Common Eastern (Bombas impatiens) which you will see more than 50% of the time.
There are many beautiful bumble bee species beyond the Common Eastern, such as the Brown-belted (B. griseocollis), Two-spotted (B. bimaculatus), Golden Northern (B. fervidus) (my favorite) and the Black and Gold (B. auricomus). I’ve photographed these over the last couple of years. Sometimes the bees are flitting about so quickly, it’s hard to make a positive ID without a photograph.
I’ve been fortunate to be a volunteer this summer for a bumble bee survey being done by the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab in Maryland. Their project covers 13 states in the New England area. Their scope is to observe and identify bumble bees and the blooming plants they are obtaining nectar/pollen from. The end goal is to identify the appropriate species of plants/seeds to better encourage the sustainability of our bumble bees throughout the area. While Ohio is not within the 13-state scope of this project, we anticipate the data may be able to be used (if sufficient resources become available.) I certainly hope so!
I hope this research data ultimately helps us all better understand the types of plants we can use in our own yards to assist these amazing creatures to thrive. They pollinate the beautiful flowering plants that make our world a better place in which to live. I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the amazing world of some of our native bees.
Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.