Yesterday, my sister happened to look out the dining room window and saw a bunch of bees around a native prairie plant from Wisconsin that we can’t identify. Her first thought was that they were my honeybees and pointed them out. Of course I grabbed my camera and went to the window, watching the bees. Immediately, I saw that they were bumble bees not honeybees. Intrigued, I observed and snapped photos of the bees hard at work on the tiny flowers of this plant. However, the window wasn’t a good place to really watch the bees and be in the middle of the activity. I stepped outside, down the deck steps and around it to the other side, a few more steps until I was close enough to watch the bumble bees without disturbing them. I was close enough though to be amidst the buzz, bees coming to and going from the plant would zip past my shoulder, the loud buzz of their wings echoing in my ear. I was fascinated, I can’t recall another time I saw that many bumble bees working over a plant or working that close together before. I tried counting them, probably counted a few a couple of times and missed some others but there may have been at least two dozen bumble bees. Excited, I took several photos. The hum of their wings filled the flower bed. Their hairy legs were filled with gobs of pollen. They stuck their long tongues into the tiny blossoms, partaking in the sweet nectar. Beauty, breathtaking beauty, the dozens of bumble bees filled me with awe and wonder. It was a spectacle I’ve never seen before. For a moment, camera poised and ready, I stood enveloped by the hum of the bees, all else faded until it was just bees, flowers, and me. For that brief moment in time, I became connected with the bees as they were feeding, their buzzing coursed through me, all my thoughts were on them. I stood marveling at these little, hardworking creatures. They were so graceful, fluid and determined in their movements, like dancers gliding across a ballroom floor. It was spellbinding, magical, almost mystical.
In the last few years, since we have quit mowing everything and are leaving some rough areas throughout the yard and farm, we have seen a considerable increase in the bumble bees on the farm. They nest in cavities underground, hollow logs, abandoned rodent dens, open grass tussocks, and aboveground manmade structures; herbaceous habitats are crucial for bumble bee nesting. It has been a delight to see the number of bumble bees grow on the farm. As I work in the greenhouses and gardens, I work alongside many bumble bees throughout the day as they climb in and out of the huge squash blossoms, crawl on top of red clover blossoms, and work over the tiny, yet tricky tomato blossoms. The music of their wings carrying them between blossoms fills the air around me; I listen with joy and praise to a Creator who gave us such a splendid gift. And perhaps we may learn from the bumble bees for they are incredible, industrious, and selfless creatures, laboring all day not to further themselves as individuals, but to benefit the community (family), to ensure there is provision for many generations after them. Bumble bees provide a model for us. (Of course, there are the cuckoo bumble bees that are parasitic and an exception; however their populations never exceed those of their host species. Cuckoo bees do not forage or found colonies of their own. The queens enter a nest of another species, sometimes kill the queen, and overcome the workers with aggression and pheromones, lays her eggs and the workers then rear the offspring that will be male and female (no workers). Even so, cuckoo bees are interested in family longevity, caring for the success of many generations to come, not merely looking only to the success of its own self.)
Bumble bees are truly fascinating. Though social insects, working together to raise young, a colony doesn’t persist year after year, just before winter the colony dies leaving only the new queens to establish new colonies the following spring. New queens leave the colony during the day to feed; they need to eat a great deal of nectar and pollen to build fat reserves for winter. A queen mates once with one male before winter. Then she finds a place to overwinter, it may be a burrow of another animal, or she may excavate a hole in loose dirt or debris like a compost pile. In the spring, the queen emerges and begins to found a colony. She immediately searches for a suitable nest sight, flying low to the ground, repeatedly landing to investigate a potential site. Next, she gathers pollen and nectar from early flowering plants. Back in her nest, a queen constructs a wax honey pot for nectar storage. She lays her eggs on a brood clump which is a mass of pollen moistened with nectar in a tiny wax cup. After the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the pollen mass. The queen spends her time foraging for food and incubating the larvae. At this point in the colony’s development it is extremely vulnerable since there is only the queen to do the work of foraging, brood care, and defending the nest. After a couple of weeks feeding, the larvae spin a silk cocoon and pupate for two more weeks before they emerge as female workers. They take over the tasks of foraging, tending eggs and larvae, regulating temperature of the nest and defending the nest. Now that she has passed on the other tasks, the queen mother only lays eggs. The colony grows rapidly with the availability of more food resources. Sometime in the summer, they switch from female workers over to the production of males and new queens.
Bumble bees are indeed wonderful little creatures! They are tremendously important pollinators, for they are very effective at pollinating both wild and cultivated plants. Also, many food crops are pollinated by bumble bees. They are generalist feeders visiting a variety of plants, yet another reason why bumble bees are such valuable pollinators. Sadly, numerous populations of bumble bee species throughout the United States (and the rest of the world) are declining. Some have become endangered and most are threatened. If we lose our bumble bee populations, there will be adverse effects for native plants, mammals and birds that rely on those plants and even for people. Their decline is mostly through habitat loss and insecticide use. Of course there are other threats like climate change, pathogen overspill, introduction of invasive species, and intentional and accidental deaths of individuals and colonies by people misunderstanding and fearing bees. It’s heartbreaking that many of the bumble bee species are threatened, a world without bees would be very dull, lacking in color and taste. So I watch the bees in my yard and around the farm with great interest, love and care. With a child like wonder, and a human love for beauty, I delight in observing and working alongside the native bumble bees.
I wanted to stay and watch their dance for many more moments, but one of my nephews said my name, breaking the spell, reminding me there was work to be done. Reluctantly, I left the bees, turning to look back at them one more time before rounding the deck, and yet again once on the deck before heading back into the house. Once again, I was humbled by the splendor of creation.