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Bumblebees Foraging Fall Flowers

10-5-15 tri-colored bumblebee IMG_1479With frost just a whisper away, and in some areas not even that, there are still hardy plants, many in the Composite family (goldenrods, asters, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow), which defy the odds and optimistically send forth blossoms on the off chance that there are still pollinators on the wing. Fortunately for them, bumblebees can and do fly at much cooler temperatures than honeybees and other pollinators. When food is plentiful and outside temperatures fall below 50°F., bumblebees generally stay inside their nest and live off their stores. At times when food is scarce or stores are low, they will forage when the outside temperature is as low as 43°F. (In severe conditions they have even been known to vary their flying height to and from the nest to take advantage of any temperature differences.) Locally, Tri-colored Bumblebees (Bombus ternarius) have a near monopoly on the last vestiges of nectar and pollen (see photo).

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9 responses

  1. The Carpenter and the Honeybee

    I first noticed her a few minutes after lunch on Saturday, a cold, gray, lowering afternoon full of the ominous promise of worse to come.

    All morning I had been setting joists for the floor of our new house — two-by-ten planks, fourteen feet long. Not exactly exciting work, and arduous enough when working alone, but satisfying. It gives you the illusion that you are accomplishing a tremendous amount of work in a short time.

    During the night the planks had frozen together. Now, as the weak warmth of the November afternoon heated their surfaces, they filled the cellar below with the aroma of wet spruce.

    Carrying the first plank up to the ramp after lunch, I looked down and saw her for the first time. She was perched on the double box joist right at the end of the foundation, and seemed to be trying to squeeze — impossible for her — into the tiny crack between the two planks.

    Like most people, I am a mass of contradictions on the subject of non-human creatures. I love beef and pork, for example, but would not raise a calf or pig because I would not kill it. I can with very few pangs of conscience shoot a deer, but I try to avoid squashing spiders or snakes. I find earwigs loathsome, but centipedes humorous. Because of poems and stories read to me as a child, I have a serious Calvinistic respect for the beaver and honeybee. But I wouldn’t want either of them in a car with me on the highway.

    She was a honeybee. Just as I was about to put my hand down upon her accidentally, my unconscious mind hollered, “Look out!” and the reflex jerked my arm back. I staggered, out of balance.

    If she noticed the close call we had both had, she gave no sign, and continued to try to wedge herself into that crack. Intrigued, I put down my plank and bent down to watch her. I wondered for a moment, as I pulled my specs down my nose, the better to see her up close, how it would feel to have a bee sting right on the end of my nose.

    For good and obvious reasons, most of us have never seen a bee at really close quarters. Like any perfectly designed utilitarian object, they are lovely. This one, with her big, black eyes, six sturdy legs, transparent wings, and gently tapering torso, was a little aerial tugboat whose entire life had known but one passion: absolute dedication to the community which depended upon her, and upon which she in turn was absolutely dependent. She was a food-gatherer, but in the event of a perceived threat to her community, she would instinctively defend it with a kamikaze attack whose success would kill her. Celibate, bound for life to a seven-day work week, and laced into a monosexual caste of concrete rigidity, she was what she was, a worker, and aspired — could aspire — to nothing else.

    What was she doing, then, scrabbling around on a couple of half-frozen joists on a cold November afternoon? Why wasn’t she home? Surely there was no pollen or nectar to gather at this time of the year, on such a day. Where was home? The nearest hives I knew of were over half a mile away, on the far side of a high ridge, and they’d probably turned in for the winter.

    If I’d been a good Hindu, I suppose, I’d just have passed her by. “Ah!” I’d have thought, “another creature is about to enter the transitional phase of the wheel of existence. May she be granted grace for her next incarnation!”

    But Western man is an ass. Whenever another creature catches his attention, he immediately assigns it human attributes, privileges, and responsibilities. He considers it a calamity if any creature to which he has attached his affections expires or, as he says, “gets lost.” He is incapable of understanding that events which he tries like murder to avoid are quite natural, acceptable, and possibly even agreeable to other species. And he has a compulsion always to be fiddling with things to try to work his will.

    So right away I slipped into my first aid frame of mind: What could I do to return this poor little bee safe and happy to her sisters, who must be mad with anxiety over her absence? There was, to be honest, no doubt in my mind that a honeybee far from the hive on a November day, unable to fly or even walk straight, is a dead honeybee. But I nevertheless clung to the hope that with a little help from me she might suddenly and miraculously take wing and hum off through the woods on a beeline toward home.

    Perhaps she needed a little warmth. Gingerly I pushed the point of my pencil under her front legs. She clung to it shakily. Cupping my hands around her, I breathed warm air into the enclosure (sudden, horrible fantasy of her taking off right into my mouth!). After a minute or two, I peeked. If anything, she was in worse shape than before. Must have been the coffee I had after lunch.

    Which reminded me: What do bees eat? I hadn’t the faintest idea, but honey sounded right, and we had some right up in our cabin. So I set her down on the joist again, went back to the cabin, and heated up a little dab of honey on a paper plate in the microwave. I took it back, set it down, and placed her gently on the plate.

    Her legs were still moving spasmodically. They carried her across the plate and right into the honey. She floundered grotesquely in it, turning onto her side. Just before she became completely mired, I fished her out again. Still staggering, she crossed my palm, leaving a little trail of warm honey, and began to try to squeeze between two of my fingers.

    “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I just don’t know what to do for you,” I said (hoping all the while that no friend would come upon me suddenly and ask what I was doing with a bee, a paper plate, and a dab of warm honey). Invoking the principle of the living will and bowing to the inevitable, I put her back where I had first found her, no worse, I hoped, because of me, than at our introduction.

    Within an hour she had stopped moving. Before dark she had shriveled to little more than half her living size, legs folded up beneath her and her long, slender abdomen pulled into a tight curl. I remembered then her frantic groping for a hole to crawl into. So I tucked her safely down between the sill and the girder pad, where it’s not likely she’ll ever be disturbed, until the house is dismantled in some dim, distant day.

    Requiescat in pace, sweetheart. I’d say it better if I knew the second person imperative mood. But that’ll do, from one worker to another.

    October 7, 2015 at 7:59 am

    • What a loving tribute to one of my favorite insects! Thank you so much for sharing, Will.

      October 7, 2015 at 8:49 am

    • Wish I could help with the Latin, but couldn’t even master pig latin! Loved your anecdote. We are such bumbling(!) naturalists, but our hearts are in the right place…just not always at the right time! If it makes you feel any better, the bumblebee had reached her end of duty and was quite resigned to her fate. Humans could learn a lot from that!

      PS Please write again! And Mary, thank you for the lovely picture and id of Bombus ternarius. I have seen many of these on my goldenrod and other flowers. Their rusty color is so attractive.

      October 10, 2015 at 12:02 pm

  2. Bonny Boatman

    BB’s try so hard!!! touching …sniff sniff!

    October 7, 2015 at 10:05 am

  3. Jean Harrison

    Queen Anne’s Lace is in Umbelliferae, now called Apiaceae. It’s the same species as carrot.

    October 7, 2015 at 11:57 pm

  4. Jean Harrison

    A very beautiful photo. I love the colors.

    October 7, 2015 at 11:59 pm

  5. Joan

    Nice photo. Can you please identify the flower? Part of it looks like thistle, but the white petals are confusing me. Thanks.

    October 9, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    • It’s an aster, but I can’t tell you which species!

      October 9, 2015 at 6:05 pm

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