An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Bumblebees Mating

The adult male bumblebee has only one function in life and that is to mate.  However, research shows that only one out of seven males are successful in this endeavor.  When mating does take place, it is more complex than one might imagine.

In most species, the male bumblebees fly in a circuit depositing a queen-attracting scent (pheromone) from a gland in their head onto vegetation and prominent structures such as trees and rocks.  This usually takes place in the morning, and if it rains, the scent is replaced.  The males then patrol the area, with each species of bee flying at a specific height. Once a (virgin) queen has been attracted, mating takes place on the ground or vegetation, and lasts anywhere from 10 to 80 minutes.  After the male’s sperm has been deposited he inserts a genital plug in the queen which, when hardened, prevents the sperm of other males from entering her for up to three days.  (Photo by Heather Thompson: queen bumblebee with several smaller male suitors)

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Bumblebees Active On Cool Mornings

5-2-18 bumblebee2 096

There is a reason why we often see bumblebees before we see honey bees in the early spring. It’s a matter of 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Bumblebees will fly when the air temperature is as low as 50°F. and sometimes lower. Honey bees cannot fly if it’s colder than 55°F.

Even though they can fly at 50°F., bumblebees cannot take off unless their flight muscles are above 86°F. and they must keep the temperature of their thorax between 86°F. and 104°F. In order to accomplish this, bumblebees uncouple their wing muscles so that the wings themselves do not move, and then use the muscles to shiver and raise their thorax temperature. (Photo: Tri-colored Bumblebee & Trailing Arbutus)

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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.

Robber Fly Mimics Bumblebee

8-4-14  robber fly like bumblebee2 054Milkweed leaves make excellent platforms for all kinds of insects, particularly those such as dragonflies and robber flies, which sit, wait and watch, surveying the landscape for prey to ambush. This robber fly could quite easily be mistaken for a bumblebee. However, the short, straight antennae and the presence of only two wings (instead of four) tell you it’s in the order Diptera (true flies). The pointed, stout proboscis, bearded face, fleshy feet and long, tapering abdomen narrow it down to a species of robber fly. Robber flies in the genus Laphria resemble bumblebees – they are typically quite hairy, with black bodies and yellow stripes on their abdomens. Like other species of robber flies, they hunt by perching and snagging prey such as other robber flies, bees, wasps or beetles. They often return to their perch, inject the prey with enzymes that dissolve its innards, and then have a long drink. Why mimic a bumblebee? To deceive unsuspecting honeybees, wasps and other insects that would make a good meal.

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Showy Orchis Flowering

6-4-14 showy orchis 267A walk in deciduous woodlands at this time of year could result in the sighting of several species of orchids, one of which, Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabili), has a stalk of several flowers which typically bear lavender hoods (one variant is white). Potential pollinators, most of which are long-tongued bumblebees, butterflies, moths and bees, land on a white petal below the hood which acts as a “landing pad.” The insect next heads for the tip of the nectar-filled spur located at the back of the flower. In getting there it brushes against, and often picks up, packets of pollen (pollinia) before moving on to the next blossom, where cross-pollination ideally takes place. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Basking Bumblebees

10-10-13  basking bumblebee 016Bumblebees are some of the earliest bees to emerge in the spring and are often the last to be seen in the fall. They can regulate their own body temperature by shivering or basking in the sun. This enables bumblebees not only to stay active longer during the season, but also during wet or cooler weather. Look for them on sunny patches of ground at this time of year.

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Jewelweed’s Cross-pollination Strategy

10-1-13 bumblebee and jewelweed  092Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), also known as Touch-Me-Not due to the sensitivity of its bursting seed pods, illustrates a strategy used by many flowers to promote cross-pollination. The male and female parts of the flower develop sequentially — first the male (stamen), then the female (pistil), so that they are not mature and receptive at the same time. The bumblebee in this photograph is squeezing into the spur of a Jewelweed flower in order to reach the sweet nectar it contains. In doing so, its back brushes against the strategically located, pollen-laden anther (tip of male stamen). When the bee enters another Jewelweed flower, if its pistil is mature, some of this pollen is likely to brush against the stigma (sticky tip of the female pistil), thereby cross-pollinating the flower.

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Bottle Gentian Flowering

9-10-13 bottle gentian IMG_8093Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, is one of our latest blooming wildflowers, and one of our most beautiful. Because its petals are closed so tightly, only bumblebees (pictured) and a few other insects have the strength to push their way inside the flower to reach Bottle Gentian’s sugar-laden nectar.

Like many other flowers, Bottle Gentian times the maturation of its reproductive parts to discourage self-pollination. Male pollen-bearing stamens mature first, and by the time the female pistil is mature, the stamens have gone by so the flower’s pistil can’t receive its own pollen (see central pistil surrounded by withered stamens in insert).

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Pink Lady’s Slippers Flowering

pink lady's slipper2   223Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), also known as Moccasin Flowers, differ from Yellow and Showy Lady’s Slippers in two fairly obvious ways. One is that the stalk the single flower is borne on bears no leaves. In addition, the pouch, or labellum, has a vertical slit running the length of it, rather than an oval opening on the top. Bumblebees are the only insect strong enough to push their way through this slit and are their main pollinators. In New England, almost 25% of the Pink Lady’s Slipper population have white flowers (see insert).

Wild Columbine & Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

5-16-13 wild columbine158Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is in full flower, and its design and color beckon to a recently-returned migrant that is attracted to red as well as tubular flowers – the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Not only does the flowering of Wild Columbine coincide with the arrival of hummingbirds in May, but the ranges of these two species are much the same. Wild Columbine’s five petals are in the shape of spurs, the tips of which contain nectar. Only hummingbirds and long-tongued bees can reach the nectar, and thus are its primary pollinators (there is a short-tongued bumblebee that tears open the tip of the spur in order to reach the nectar). While the hummingbird hovers beneath the flower and drinks nectar, its head rubs against Columbine’s long anthers, and the resulting pollen on the hummingbird’s head is brushed off onto the long styles of the next (Columbine) flower it visits, thereby pollinating it.

A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!

Bottle Gentian & Bumblebees

Bumblebees are nothing if not perseverant.  Prying Bottle Gentian’s (Gentiana andrewsii) petals open is a monumental task, and one that few insects, other than large species of bumblebees, attempt — much less accomplish.  The relationship of bumblebees and Bottle Gentian is an example of a mutualistic association — the bees benefit by having exclusive access to a bountiful and sugary nectar supply, and the plants benefit by attracting “loyal” pollinators that improve the chances for cross pollination.

Milkweed Visitors

Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. ( )

Fringed Polygala

Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia) looks a bit like a miniature orchid, but it is not — it is in the Milkwort family. The structure of its ¾-inch bright magenta-pink blossoms is well-suited for its bumblebee pollinators.  The bee lands on the pink fringe at the front of the flower and its weight triggers the white “keel” to drop down.  A slit at the keel’s top opens, exposing the reproductive parts of the flower.  Pollen from the stamens is rubbed onto the bee’s hairs while it probes deeply into the base of the flower for nectar, while pollen from a previously visited Fringed Polygala is scraped off onto the stigma, where it needs to be in order for fertilization to take place.