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Bumblebees Raising Queens & Males

9-11-15  bumblebee emerging IMG_5476Unlike a hive of honeybees, where the queen and workers overwinter, the only bees in a bumblebee colony that live through the winter are young, fertilized queens. In early fall, bumblebees begin producing new queens as well as males in order to allow the colony to reproduce. Once the adult virgin queens and males have emerged from the silk cocoons within their pupal cells, they leave the hive. The male bees spend their time feeding on nectar and trying to mate with the new queens and the young queens mate with several males. Once fertilized, the queens continue to feed, building up fat bodies for the approaching winter. Once enough fat bodies are stored, queens begin searching for suitable overwintering locations. Overwintering sites are often in an abandoned chipmunk or mouse burrow, or in soft soil or compost, where they can survive temperatures down to – 5° F. due to a kind of “antifreeze” they produce. The rest of the hive (old queen, workers and any remaining males) dies once cold weather arrives. In the spring the queens emerge and start new colonies. (Thanks to Natalie Kerr & Sadie Brown for making this post possible and accurate.)

Photo by Sadie Brown: A recently-excavated underground colony of bumblebees (by a chemical-free “pest” controller) contained several wax pupal cells, as well as wet, silver-haired bumblebees (their color appears as they age) emerging from some of the cells. At this time of year, they are most likely to be queens or drones.

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7 responses

  1. etymologist

    All the more reason to ensure plenty of fall-blooming perennials for the newly queens and their consorts. Factoid for Potter fans: the country folk in SE England have called these humble bees dumbledores. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe J.K. Rowling hails from this region.

    September 15, 2015 at 8:28 am

  2. etymologist

    Correction: Make that SW England (and east Cornwall), and newly-crowned queens

    September 15, 2015 at 9:10 am

  3. So fascinating Mary. Thank you for posting. Incredible capture of a moment within their intimate life cycle!

    September 15, 2015 at 9:14 am

  4. myra ferguson

    So, when I’m digging in the newly thawed soil, in the springtime, and a bumble bee emerges; it’s a queen? Or something else? Either way, it’s amazing to see this. I always talk to this emergent bee and say, “What the @#!%& are you doing? You belong flying through the air with a delightful buzz and perhaps dropping bits of soil along your path. What are you doing in this delicious soil?”

    September 15, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    • Hi Myra,
      Bumblebees often nest underground, so if it were late enough in the spring, it could have been a male or a female worker you saw…but if it was really early, then you’re right, it probably was a queen!

      September 15, 2015 at 7:30 pm

  5. katharine schillemat

    Mary, your readers might be interested in follow up photos of bumblebees mating, witnessed in the parking lot of the Historical Society of Cheshire County in Keene, NH.  Phil Brown of NH Audubon was visiting our facility and as he and I were walking out to his car, he looked down and caught these two “in the act.”  Photos courtesy of Rick Swanson, our development director.   We used a piece of cardstock to move them to a safe location to continue mating without the worry of getting run over by a car.   Kathy Schillemat, a loyal reader and appreciator of your blogs.

    September 17, 2015 at 11:13 am

    • Hi Katharine,
      Your photos didn’t come through (WordPress doesn’t allow them to) but if you wanted to email them to me at I would love to see them. If any readers have my book, Naturally Curious, there is a photo of mating bumblebees on p. 277. Many thanks.

      September 17, 2015 at 8:37 pm

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