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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A Bald-faced Hornet colony begins in the spring when a queen emerges from winter hibernation. The queen builds a small nest, creates a few brood cells within the nest, deposits eggs in them and feeds the larvae when they hatch. These larvae are female workers — they will continue the nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest while the queen concentrates on laying eggs.
During the summer the colony (and size of the nest) grows until there are between 100 to 400 workers. Toward the end of the summer the queen lays two special types of eggs. The first will be, like the workers’ eggs, fertilized eggs that will develop into females, but these females will be fertile (and develop into queens). The second group of eggs will be unfertilized eggs. These eggs will develop into fertile males. The maturation and emergence of the new queens and the fertile males marks the end of the functioning of the colony. At this point the workers are not replaced and die out. The ruling queen, having served her purpose, also dies. The newly-emerged adults (queens and fertilized males) leave the nest, mate, and the fertilized queens overwinter and begin their colony cycle all over again in the following spring. Some small nests complete their cycle by mid-September, while some large nests are still going strong until the cold kills the larvae in late November.
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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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At this time of year, yellow jackets, hornets and wasps take advantage of the plethora of fermented fruit that lies underneath fruit trees. Because the queen slows down the production of eggs in the fall, workers have time on their hands, as they have fewer larvae to collect food (chewed-up insects) for. Their life (but not the queen’s) is about to come to an end, and they go out in style. If you have observed these members of the Vespidae family acting more erratic, it may well be because they are drunk on hard cider. (Photo: yellow jackets binging)
If 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.
There are over 1,000 North American species of solitary hunting wasps. All of them prey on arthropods, which the female stings and paralyzes (but doesn’t kill so that they don’t begin to decompose immediately). Most solitary wasps specialize on a single type of prey, and many build highly characteristic burrow nests. Once the prey is stung, the wasp carries it back to her nest where she then lays a single egg and closes up the nest. The developing wasp larva feeds on the paralyzed prey, pupates and emerges as an adult wasp.
One group of solitary hunting wasps is referred to as thread-waisted wasps (family Sphecidae), due to their long, stalk-like waists. While most close up their nests (by kicking sand over the entrance) after stocking it with prey and laying an egg, some species close their nest with a pebble and return, remove the pebble, and periodically restock the nest with fresh caterpillars for the growing larva. (Photo by Mardie Holland: thread-waisted sphecid wasp with caterpillar prey)
The Pruinose Squash Bee (Peponapis pruinosa) is most often noticed when it’s gathering nectar or pollen from squash, pumpkin, watermelon or gourd blossoms. (Squash bees have been shown to be excellent pollinators of zucchini and butternut squashes, among others. If numerous, they thoroughly pollinate all available flowers, rendering later visits of honeybees superfluous. Before Europeans brought honeybees to the New World, squash bees were busy aiding the adoption, domestication, spread, and production of squashes and gourds by indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.) The bee’s black and white striped abdomen is easy to recognize.
While female squash bees are busy foraging for pollen in the flowers of plants in the Cucurbitae family, male squash bees can be seen darting between flowers, searching for mates. By noon, they are fast asleep in the withered flowers.
Pruinose Squash Bees are solitary bees, with every female digging her own nest in the ground. These consist of vertical tunnels that end with a number of individual chambers that are a foot or two deep in the soil. Each chamber is provided with an egg and a lump of pollen so that when the egg hatches, food is readily available. (Photo: five Pruinose Squash Bees packed into a single Bindweed flower)
This is the time of year when queen bumble bees have emerged from hibernation and are exploring for good nest sites, using both sight and smell. When searching for a suitable place in which to build a nest, a queen bumble bee flies in a distinctive zig-zag pattern low over the ground. If a certain cavity or hole interests her she will land on the ground and investigate by going into the crevice or hole.
Nest sites vary between bumble bee species. Most of the more common species prefer dry, dark cavities. Some nest underground, in places such as abandoned rodent holes, under sheds and in compost heaps. Of those that nest above ground, some make nests in thick grass, while others make nests in bird boxes and in trees.
Bumble bee nests are quite small, as they house only around 400 bumble bees (as opposed to a honey bee hive with a colony of 50,000 bees). At the end of the summer, if the nest has been successful in rearing new queens, they will leave the nest to mate and then go on to hibernate somewhere in the soil – ready to emerge the following spring to start their own colony. The original queen and the rest of the bees die as cold weather approaches.
If your home, shed or barn has weathered, unpainted wood and is riddled with ½”-diameter, perfectly round holes, there is a chance that carpenter bees are hibernating in them. Carpenter bees resemble bumblebees in both size and appearance (a carpenter bee has very few hairs on the top of its abdomen, which appears black and shiny, whereas bumble bee abdomens are often yellow and hairy), but they are not social insects. Instead of having a common nest in which they live and raise their young, carpenter bees drill holes in wooden structures or trees inside of which they chew tunnels that contain six to eight brood chambers for their young. After creating the chambers, the female carpenter bee places a portion of “bee bread” (a mixture of pollen and regurgitated nectar) in each one. On top of each pile of food she lays an egg and then seals off the chamber. The larvae eat and grow, pupate and emerge as adult bees in late summer. At this point they feed on nectar, pollinating a wide variety of flowers before they return to their tunnels to over-winter.
If you look closely at the ground directly in front of this female Black and Yellow Mud Dauber wasp you will see the clump of mud that she has collected and rolled into a ball with her mandibles. This lump of mud will be carried back to the nest site in the wasp’s mandibles, and then used as building material to mold a cell. After making the mud cell, the wasp then goes and locates spiders, stings them (paralyzing but not killing them) and brings them back to the cell, into which she packs them. When the cell is sufficiently stuffed with spiders, she lays an egg and seals the cell with more mud. She makes and fills several of these cells and typically covers all of them together with a final layer of mud. When the wasp egg in each cell hatches, the larva has living spiders to eat that haven’t decomposed, due to the fact that they are not dead. Eventually the larval wasp pupates and the adult wasp chews its way out of the cell.
Having known since childhood that most insects have only one pair of antennae, imagine my surprise when I came upon a hornet on Queen Anne’s Lace that appeared to have two: a pair of slender, black antennae, and between them, a shorter pair of white ones. A bit of research revealed to me that in fact, these white “antennae” were actually the pollen sacs (pollinia) of an introduced and somewhat invasive orchid, Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine).
Broad-leaved Helleborine is entirely dependent on insects to spread its pollen, especially wasps. It attracts them with nectar, which is said to have an alcoholic and narcotic effect which may help with the spreading of pollen, as an inebriated wasp is less likely to clean pollen off its body before leaving. Helleborine also produces a chemical which other plants produce and use to signal that they are being attacked by insects. It is used purely as a ruse by Helleborine, in order to attract wasps, Helleborine’s primary pollinators, who arrive to fend off other insects, and end up inadvertently collecting Helleborine’s pollinia.
Unlike the pollen of most plants, Helleborine’s pollen grains are so sticky that they cannot separate – thus, the entire package of pollen remains intact and is removed at one time. Wasps are capable of reaching the plant’s nectar without disturbing the pollinia, but cannot crawl out of the flower without striking against and detaching them and in so doing, getting them stuck to their heads. Can you find the pollinia in the insert photograph of a Broad-leaved Helleborine flower (which has not been visited by a wasp yet)?
Due to computer issues, Naturally Curious will resume posts next Tuesday, August 16.
Cellophane bees are one of the first bees to emerge in the spring, sometime between March and May. These solitary bees nest underground, often in close proximity to one another, with each female digging her own burrow off of which she creates several individual brood cells. Each cell is lined with a cellophane-like secretion which is applied with her short brush-like tongue to the walls of the cell. She then fills the lower portion of the cellophane sac with pollen, nectar and some glandular material, lays an egg and seals the cell with more cellophane-like substance and a bit of sand for a cap. The female then goes on to repeat the process and digs another cell.
The egg hatches and the larva grows throughout the summer, feeding on the supply of nectar and pollen contained within the cell. The larva metamorphoses in the fall and overwinters as a pupa inside the natal cell, emerging as an adult on a warm, sunny spring day.
Males, which emerge before the females, can currently be seen patrolling the area where last year’s burrows were constructed, flying just an inch or two above the ground, searching for emerging females digging themselves out of the ground. When a female is spotted, she is often bombarded by one or more males, creating quite the cluster of bees. One male prevails, mating takes place, and the cycle continues.
If you research bald-faced hornet nests you will find that their average size is often compared to that of a football or basketball. The maximum size is said to be between 14 and 18 inches in diameter, and up to 23 or 24 inches in length. The pictured nest (which hung 20 feet above the roof of my house) measures 14 inches wide and 29 inches long – far larger than the average hornet nest!
This entire nest was built in roughly four months. It was started by a queen bald-faced hornet that, after emerging from hibernation this past spring, chewed some wood fiber, mixed it with her saliva and created a few brood cells surrounded by one or more paper “envelopes.” She laid an egg in each cell, and fed the hornet larvae insects which she first masticated into tiny bits. When the larvae pupated and emerged as adult workers, they assumed the duties of nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest, while the queen continued laying eggs in horizontal tiers of cells. This ongoing activity produced a colony of anywhere from 100 to 400 workers by the end of the summer. Shortly before the first hard frost this fall, the queen left the colony and found a protected spot in which to spend the winter. When freezing temperatures arrived, the workers all died, leaving a nest that will never again be inhabited by bald-faced hornets. (Thanks to Nick Burnham, who ingeniously managed to collect the nest for me, and Gary Trachier for the photo.)
With 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).
From the size of the chunks of sod that were ripped out of the ground in order to access this subterranean yellow jacket (Vespula sp.) nest, one can deduce that a black bear, not a striped skunk or raccoon, was the nocturnal visitor. Usually there is little intact nest left after a bear tears it apart in an effort to find yellow jacket larvae, but in this case, a portion of the paper nest remained. Apparently undaunted, even with frost in the air (signaling the demise of all the yellow jackets except young, fertilized overwintering queens), the workers lost no time in rebuilding their nest. Twenty-four hours after their nest was torn apart, the colony of yellow jackets had diligently chewed enough wood fiber to have replaced much of it.
Unlike 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.
Goldenrod is one of the most important flowering plants for honeybees because it is a prolific producer of nectar and pollen late in the year. Blooming in the late summer and fall, this bright yellow-flowered composite provides nectar for the bees to build up stores of honey for winter. (Goldenrod honey is dark amber and strong tasting.) Goldenrod also provides pollen to help stimulate the colony to produce brood late into the fall. The pollen adds considerable amounts of protein, fats, and minerals to the diet of the late-season bees, helping ensure that they will have food throughout the winter.
A honeybee colony has one (fertile, egg-laying) queen, several hundred male drones and thousands of (sterile) female worker bees. The drone’s one and only function is to mate with and fertilize a queen. (They do no work in the hive, and are fed by workers until fall.) Early in a queen’s life, she makes several mating, or nuptial, flights. On these flights, she mates — in midair about 200-300 feet high — with anywhere from one to more than 40 drones. They are usually not from the queen’s hive, but may be from several other hives. The average number of drones with which a queen mates is 12. The queen stores up to six million sperm from her mating flights, and retains them for the remainder of her life — two to three years, for a long-lived queen. (Recent research shows that the more times a queen mates, the more attractive she is to her worker bees, due to pheromone alterations, and thus, the longer she lives before being replaced.)
While the queen may live several years after mating, the few drones that manage to partner with her do not, for they die after mating. Although brief, honeybee mating is dramatic. The drone inserts his endophallus (internal penis) into the queen’s sting chamber and with great force injects his sperm into her. The force with which this is done is so powerful that it ruptures the endophallus, separating the drone from the queen. The drone dies shortly thereafter. (At this time of year, honeybee hives often swarm due to overcrowding, with the old queen departing with half of the hive; a new, virgin queen then takes her nuptial flights.) Photo: A drone honeybee which lost its life after successfully mating with a queen. Discovered and photographed by Boston Beekeeper Association founder, Sadie Richards Brown.
Most 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)
The Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneus, is a solitary, predatory wasp whose hunting and nesting techniques are programmed and never vary. Having overwintered underground in a nest dug by its mother, the adult wasp emerges, often in August, and begins preparations for the next generation. She digs several nests in packed, sandy soil, using her mandibles to cut the earth. Emerging backwards from the ground with a lump of soil between her forelegs and head, she flips the soil with her forelegs beneath her body, scattering it to the sides with her hind legs. In this manner she excavates several cells off a central 4-6-inch deep tunnel.
The wasp seeks out prey — often a grasshopper, cicada or cricket – and then stings and paralyzes it. If the prey is small, she flies it directly to the nest. If prey is too large to transport aerially, the wasp will walk with it across the ground, dragging it by its antennae (see photo). She then drops the prey several inches from the nest hole. After crawling down into the nest for a brief inspection, she pulls the prey down into one of the cells while walking backwards. She then leaves to find another insect. When a cell contains paralyzed prey, the wasp lays an egg on the insect. The egg hatches within two or three days and the wasp larva begins eating the insect. Because the prey is not dead, decomposition is delayed, and the wasp larva’s food is relatively fresh. The developing wasps overwinter in the nest and emerge the following summer to begin the process all over again.
If you live near a sunny area of compacted clay and sand that has flower nectar for adults to feed on and crickets, grasshoppers and katydids for their larvae, you may well have a chance to observe this unique ritual. (Thanks to Marian Cawley for photo op.)