All About Pollinators Series: The Wonderful World of Bumble Bees

By Mary Brennan, HF&G Volunteer and Ohio Volunteer Pollinator Specialist

Summer is in full swing with warm days, lots of sunshine, a bright display of a multitude of flowers and the sweet drone of bees flying from blossom to blossom. It’s not hard to notice that the most loudest buzzing is coming from the biggest bee– and that’s a Bumble bee, or a member of the genus Bombus. In Ohio there are 16 species of Bumble bees with 10 locally. We’ll talk a little more about the three that you’ll see most commonly, and the things you can look for to tell who is who next week! But first–a little more about those rather large, fuzzy, buzzy creatures. Not surprisingly , they are sometimes nicknamed “flying Teddy Bears” because of their black and yellow (well, sometimes with some cream, dark brown of tan/reddish brown too) coloring. Even though they can dart from flower to flower, they are big enough and take their time when they reach a flower that you can get a pretty good look. And one of the reasons that they are such valuable pollinators is because they are generalist– they go to many kinds of flowers.

Lets investigate a little deeper into the lives of Bumble bees. They are social bees, meaning they have a Queen, workers who help in the nest and gather food, and males who mate with the Queen. She has been with a male in the fall and is the only one from her nest to winter over in the ground. She emerges early in the Spring. You may have seen her flying low to the ground looking for a place to make her nest. She gathers nectar along the way, and when she locates a likely spot–usually an old rodent hole–she makes her nest, laying eggs in round wax covered balls filled with pollen and nectar. She continues to forage for food and pollen until her first daughters hatch and then they take over those duties as she continues to build the family.  It is not until later summer that next year’s Queens and the males hatch and the cycle begins again. Mating occurs, the new Queens find a place to winter over and the rest of the colony is ended after the first frost.

Bumble bees are uniquely equipped to live their lives as pollinators. As I mentioned, they harvest nectar and pollen from lots of flowers–something not all bees can do. If the pollen is hard to get to, they can unlock their wing muscles and vibrate them (known as “Buzz pollination”). The vibrations cause the pollen to fall onto their hairy bodies! Being able to do this also allows them to warm the nest or  go out in cool damp weather when other bees have to stay sheltered. Bumble bees can create their own warmth! The female bees also have a scooped out area on their hind legs where they can mix pollen and nectar together making a sort of paste which is then stored in this “pollen basket” (corbicula) to be taken back to the nest, which is generally about one third to one mile away.  Watch for a Bumble bee with a big saddle bag on her back legs– the color coming from whatever pollen has been collected. Sometimes I wonder how they can even fly with so much pollen, but they do!

Just to let you know, male bees cannot sting–they don’t have stingers!  Female Bumble bees can, but they are not aggressive and generally won’t sting unless severely threatened, they are just about getting food for their family!  Next week we’ll find out how to recognize a few common Bumble bees and how to see the difference between them and another bee that looks very similar–a Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa).

As I walked around the Butterfly Garden at the Arboretum today, the place was really “buzzing”! Bumbles were everywhere! Lots were sitting atop Purple Coneflowers, Russian Sage, Milkweed, the tall white spikes of Culvers Root, and lavender Bee Balm ( Monarda.) If you get a chance, go experience the wonderful sights and sounds of summer, and watch those Bumbles bees for a bit–you will be surprised and delighted!