Bumblebees

April showers not only bring May flowers, they also warm the ground enough for queen bumblebees to emerge from hibernation. Bumblebees are usually the first bees active in spring. Unlike honeybee colonies, which may live for years with the same queen, new bumblebee colonies form annually by a mated queen.

The queen flies low over the ground, searching for a suitable nest hole. She cannot dig her own; instead, she chooses a dry cavity such as an abandoned mouse nest, a hollow log, or underneath a grass tussock. She begins producing wax, creating wax pots for storing nectar. In a smaller wax pot, she lays her first eggs on a mass of pollen moistened with nectar, called a brood clump. After the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the pollen while the queen alternates between foraging for food and incubating the young.

Bumblebees can regulate their body temperature by shivering their thoracic flight muscles or basking in the sun to warm up. On cold days, the queen sits on her eggs, shivering to generate heat over them. Bumblebees practice two different parenting styles. The “pocket-making” species place pollen in wax pockets adjacent to the brood clump, requiring the larvae to feed together from this supply. The “pollen-storer” species feed the larvae directly so that as the larvae grow, they leave the brood clump.

After four weeks, two as larvae and two as pupae (cocoons), metamorphosis is completed and the pupae emerge as worker bees. The female worker bees take on foraging duties so that the queen can stay safely inside and continue laying eggs. As additional flowers bloom, successive workers enlarge the colony to about 50 bees.

Like other members of the order Hymenoptera, bees control the sex of their eggs, a system known as haplodiploidy. In early fall, a queen produces both male and female eggs. Fertilized eggs become females. Unfertilized eggs become males. Adult males depart to search for mates, never returning to the hive. Females become the new queens, are fed by workers, and eventually leave to mate, each with one male. Mated queens search for a hibernation spot under logs or leaves. All the workers, males, and queens will eventually die, completing the life cycle. Only fruits and seeds remain as proof of the successful colony.

Bumblebee on Gaillardia

Shake, rattle, and roll.

Bumblebees’ ability to regulate their body temperature means they can fly longer during cool, wet weather than honeybees or other native bees. Watch and listen closely to observe their additional special ability to “buzz-pollinate.” They disengage their wings from their flight muscles, moving those muscles to shake their whole body with a loud buzz. Their vibrations release significant amounts of pollen, making them very good pollinators of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, blueberries, cranberries, and wildflowers. Many greenhouses that grow crops utilize commercial bumblebee colonies.

Fight for your food.

Competition among bumblebee species for food resources is settled by their variation in tongue length. Bees with long tongues can reach nectar in tubular flowers, while bees with shorter tongues forage on smaller flowers. Many species, however, have become adept at “nectar robbing” by biting holes in the base of long flower corollas (petals), resulting in negative consequences for plant reproduction.

Plant with a green thumb.

To help bumblebees survive, plant a diversity of native flowers blooming successively throughout the growing season. Control alien invasive plants because they do not provide the same food resources, and they displace desirable plants. Reduce your use of pesticides, especially during times when bees are active. Avoid disturbing bee nests, and provide open ground for nesting and overwintering sites.


April showers not only bring May flowers, they also warm the ground enough for queen bumblebees to emerge from hibernation. Bumblebees are usually the first bees active in spring. Unlike honeybee colonies, which may live for years with the same queen, new bumblebee colonies form annually by a mated queen.

The queen flies low over the ground, searching for a suitable nest hole. She cannot dig her own; instead, she chooses a dry cavity such as an abandoned mouse nest, a hollow log, or underneath a grass tussock. She begins producing wax, creating wax pots for storing nectar. In a smaller wax pot, she lays her first eggs on a mass of pollen moistened with nectar, called a brood clump. After the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the pollen while the queen alternates between foraging for food and incubating the young.

Bumblebees can regulate their body temperature by shivering their thoracic flight muscles or basking in the sun to warm up. On cold days, the queen sits on her eggs, shivering to generate heat over them. Bumblebees practice two different parenting styles. The “pocket-making” species place pollen in wax pockets adjacent to the brood clump, requiring the larvae to feed together from this supply. The “pollen-storer” species feed the larvae directly so that as the larvae grow, they leave the brood clump.

After four weeks, two as larvae and two as pupae (cocoons), metamorphosis is completed and the pupae emerge as worker bees. The female worker bees take on foraging duties so that the queen can stay safely inside and continue laying eggs. As additional flowers bloom, successive workers enlarge the colony to about 50 bees.

Like other members of the order Hymenoptera, bees control the sex of their eggs, a system known as haplodiploidy. In early fall, a queen produces both male and female eggs. Fertilized eggs become females. Unfertilized eggs become males. Adult males depart to search for mates, never returning to the hive. Females become the new queens, are fed by workers, and eventually leave to mate, each with one male. Mated queens search for a hibernation spot under logs or leaves. All the workers, males, and queens will eventually die, completing the life cycle. Only fruits and seeds remain as proof of the successful colony.

Bumblebee on Gaillardia

Shake, rattle, and roll.

Bumblebees’ ability to regulate their body temperature means they can fly longer during cool, wet weather than honeybees or other native bees. Watch and listen closely to observe their additional special ability to “buzz-pollinate.” They disengage their wings from their flight muscles, moving those muscles to shake their whole body with a loud buzz. Their vibrations release significant amounts of pollen, making them very good pollinators of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, blueberries, cranberries, and wildflowers. Many greenhouses that grow crops utilize commercial bumblebee colonies.

Fight for your food.

Competition among bumblebee species for food resources is settled by their variation in tongue length. Bees with long tongues can reach nectar in tubular flowers, while bees with shorter tongues forage on smaller flowers. Many species, however, have become adept at “nectar robbing” by biting holes in the base of long flower corollas (petals), resulting in negative consequences for plant reproduction.

Plant with a green thumb.

To help bumblebees survive, plant a diversity of native flowers blooming successively throughout the growing season. Control alien invasive plants because they do not provide the same food resources, and they displace desirable plants. Reduce your use of pesticides, especially during times when bees are active. Avoid disturbing bee nests, and provide open ground for nesting and overwintering sites.

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