Friendly, fuzzy, busy bees. We all love (or should!) the adorable bumble bee. She works so hard to pollinate our flowers. From dandelions, to blueberries, to tomatoes, she does it all (depending on the species- of course!). But did you know that the super fuzzy bumble bee we see bumbling around this time of year is also a single mom?!
Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Bumble Bees live in colonies. And yes, that is true. They have different casts with labor divisions (queens, workers, and males) and can have as many as several hundred bees in their colony, mostly workers. But what about before there is a whole colony to help share the workload? Unlike the well-known European Honey Bee, the bumble bee queen (aka mother of her colony) spends the first part of spring as a single mom. How is this possible, you ask? Well, it all comes down to bee biology.
Bumble bees, including the queens, only live for about a year. This means the bees have to start a brand new colony from scratch every year. Towards the end of the year, as the colony is aging and the original queen and her workers are getting ready to die, a new queen emerges. This new queen has a long, hard journey ahead of her. Once she is mature, she leaves the dying colony to find a male to mate with. After she has secured a mate and has sperm reserved to be able to start a new family (yes, she can save it until needed), she must find a sheltered place to overwinter. The cold weather is coming. And if she is successful at making it through the long cold winter months, usually in a hole in the ground, she will be all alone. Males do not overwinter.
As spring begins and the weather warms, the young queen starts looking for a good place to make a new home for her and her babies. Usually somewhere between 20 and several hundred by mid summer, depending on the species. Bumble bees usually make their nests underground. If you see a very large looking bumble bee circling an area and repeatedly landing, then leaving, then landing somewhere different again and again, you have probably spotted a new queen looking for a suitable nesting site. Despite being young, these new queens are smart. Instead of digging a band-new hole to make a home in, the young queens look for pre-existing cavities in the ground, like under rocks or logs, or in the abandoned tunnels of mice or other burrowing critters. After all, it’s a lot easier to renovate a house than build it from scratch, right? And the young queens need to save their energy – they still have a lot of work to do.
Once the young queen establishes her new home, it’s almost time to start making baby bees. First, however, she must find pollen and nectar to feed not only her, but also the babies she wants to have. This means finding lots of flowers. Unfortunately, this can often be challenging early in the season, especially if she lives in a more northern place that doesn’t have a lot of flowers blooming yet. Once she finds the resources she needs, she starts making adorable little wax pots (=baby bee cribs), fills them with pollen and nectar, and then lays one precious egg in each pot. As each egg hatches she continues to tend, forage for, and feed each baby until they are mature. These young queen bumble bees are simply amazing. Super hardworking and completely dedicated to making a home for and caring for their babies. And all as a single mom without any protection or support.
Finally, finally, after the babies turn into adults, the young queen now has help. Most of the baby bees grow into helpful female worker bees. Now different roles can be assigned. The worker bees will go out and forage for pollen and nectar to feed everyone in the colony, including the queen and more babies, and the queen can focus on laying more eggs and growing the colony. The colony will continue to function and grow like this throughout the summer. Then the queen bumble bee, now a much more experienced bee, will lay an egg for a new queen bee. When this new queen bee egg hatches in the fall, the cycle will start all over again.
So. Next time you see one of these adorable fuzzy bees buzzing around, lend a hand. Plant some early blooming flowers. Or let the weeds go for a bit early in the year. Leave a few of those rock piles or gopher holes intact near the edges of your property. Remember, these are hardworking single bee moms and they have a long hard road ahead of them before they can produce the large productive colonies we rely on for pollinating all the produce we need and love. Thank you bee moms!
To read more about bumble bees, check out:
Interested in becoming a citizen scientist? Check out Bumble Bee Watch. All you have to do is take photos of the bumble bees you see and you help scientists learn more about the habitats and distributions of these cute critters.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful moms out there!!
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