An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Flight of the Bumblebee

bumblebee and turtlehead 049A4838If you examine plants that are still flowering this late in the season (such as asters, goldenrod and late-blooming turtlehead) early in the morning when it’s still quite cool or late in the day, many of the pollinators you see will be bumblebees, not honey bees. One reason for this is that they have different temperature tolerances for flight. You rarely see a honey bee when the temperature is below 57°F as they cannot fly when it is this cool. Bumblebees, however, are capable of flight when the air temperature is as low as 50°F.

Even so, bumblebees cannot take off unless their flight muscles are above 86°F; they maintain the temperature of their thorax (where wings and wing muscles are located) between 86°F and 104°F regardless of the ambient temperature. The way in which they raise the temperature of their thorax involves uncoupling their wing muscles so that the wings themselves do not move. They then use their wing muscles to shiver and raise the temperature of their thorax until it’s sufficiently warm enough for them to fly.

At rest a bumblebee’s body temperature will fall to that of its surroundings. If it is cool out, and the bumblebee wants to take flight, you can actually see its abdomen pumping to ventilate the flight muscles. An entomologist studying this phenomenon discovered that the rate of pumping can give an indication of the temperature of the bee. It ranges from around 1 pump per second when the bee is 86°F, to 6 pumps per second when it reaches 95°F.


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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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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Turtlehead Flowering & Being Pollinated By Bumblebees

8-14 turtlehead 073Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, a member of the Plantain family (Plantaginaceae), can be found growing along stream banks and wetlands throughout eastern North America. Its long arching upper lip, or hood, overlaps the lower lip like a turtle’s beak, giving Turtlehead its common name. The male parts of the flower mature before the female parts, and when pollen is being produced these lips are very hard to pry open. Pollinators are primarily bumblebees, which are some of the only insects that have the strength to open the flower. When the female pistil matures, the lips relax a bit, so entry is easier, but access to the nectar at the base of the flower is restricted (by a sterile stamen) to long-tongued insects. Thus, it is specifically long-tongued bumblebees that are able to both enter the flower and to reach the nectar. If you look on the sides of the flowers, occasionally you will find where impatient bumblebees have chewed through to the nectar, avoiding the struggles involved in entering the flower in the traditional manner.

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Queen Bumblebees Foraging

queen bumblebee 098Most bumblebees, unlike honeybees, die in the fall. Only the young, fertilized bumblebee queens overwinter. When they emerge early in the spring, each must start a new colony, with no help from worker bees. The queen builds a ball of moss, hair or grass, often in an abandoned rodent nest or small cavity. Within this ball the queen builds a wax honey pot, and provisions it with nectar from early-blooming flowers. Next, she collects pollen and forms it into a mound on the floor of her nest. She then lays eggs in the pile of pollen, and coats it with wax secreted from her body.

The queen bumblebee keeps her eggs warm by sitting on the pollen mound, and by shivering her muscles, raising her body temperature to between 98° F. and 102° F. For nourishment, she consumes honey from her wax pot, which is positioned within her reach. In four days, the eggs, all of which will become female workers, hatch. The bumblebee queen continues her maternal care, foraging for pollen and nectar to feed to her larvae until they pupate. After this first brood emerges as adult bumblebees the queen concentrates her efforts on laying eggs. Unfertilized female worker bees raise the larvae and the colony swells in number. At the end of summer, new queens (females) and males are produced in order to allow the colony to reproduce. After the new queens mate and become fertilized, the males all die, along with the female worker bees. The queen then seeks shelter for the winter. (Photo: Tri-colored Bumblebee queen collecting Trailing Arbutus nectar or pollen)

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New England Aster Providing Bees with Late Season Nectar & Pollen

10-13-14 new england aster & bumblebee 356At a time of year when nectar and pollen sources are few and far between, New England Aster provides many species of bees with food. This composite seems designed specifically for easy pollination. Its open, wide flower shape provides a flat surface for insects to land on, and because the nectar and pollen are not hidden deep inside the flowers, both long- and short-tongue bee species can easily access them. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees do not have a large store of honey in their nests, so they need pollen and nectar throughout the season. Thus, the few flowers such as New England Aster that blossom as late as October are visited frequently and in large numbers. (Only the queen bumblebee overwinters, but the workers continue collecting nectar and pollen up until they die in late fall.)

New England Aster flowers close at night, when there are fewer pollinating insects flying. If an unusually cool period arrives during the time when New England Aster is blooming, the blossoms also close. Although it may seem that the aster is losing pollination opportunities during a cold day, bees are not very active in cool weather.

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Bottle Gentian’s Pollinators

9-17-14  bottle gentian 259The combination of Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana clausa) blossoms’ brilliant purple/blue color, their shape, and the difficulty insects have in prying open the bottle neck their petals form, make them a highlight of every September. Getting inside their flowers is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than fairly large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish. It takes several seconds of pushing, shoving and cramming to get their head through the miniscule opening at the top of the blossom. Eventually their body follows, sliding down into the flower. While the whole bee sometimes disappears, it’s more usual to see their hind legs poking out of the flower while they lap up nectar. Not only are bumblebees strong, but their tongues (see insert) are long enough to reach the copious amount of sugar-laden nectar that awaits them inside the flower.