(This column was first published in the June 10, 2002 Buffalo News.)
When one of our first warm spring mornings finally arrived in late May, I spent several minutes watching a bumblebee visit the blossoms of an early-flowering honeysuckle. The scene had the quality of a circus act.
The queen bee was like the Disney elephant Dumbo flying between trapezes of delicate petals. Each time she landed on one of the flower clusters she could stay for only an instant before the twig holding the honeysuckle trumpets bent and threw her off.
But she kept trying -- and she had to. This was a busy time for the big black and yellow bee. After overwintering in hibernation, she now had much to do. She almost certainly had already found an abandoned underground mouse nest in which to initiate this year's new colony. She would have added fine material -- grasses and wood fibers -- to the nest interior to spruce it up and narrowed the entrance so that only she could just squeeze through.
As soon as her household surroundings suited her, she had to rush out to gather nectar and pollen to provide special furnishings for her brood. Coming back loaded down, she created a thimble-shaped honey pot just inside the entrance to serve as a reserve food supply that would carry her through more poor spring weather.
Farther into the nest behind this store of honey she deposited a waxy pile of pollen. Working carefully now with her jaws, she constructed in it a wax cell in which she deposited eight to ten eggs. They were fertilized last fall in her encounters with short-lived drones. All of those drones and her worker sisters as well died when cold set in. Only she and other queens found protected refuges where they slept through the winter.
As soon as the eggs were laid, the queen sealed the cell with more wax. Now, like a bird, for two to three weeks she will have to alternate between brooding and dashing out on brief forays to find food to maintain her body temperature.
When those first eggs hatch, the maggot-like larvae that emerge will require feeding by their busy mother as they quickly pass through four molts. Then, their sustenance abruptly halted -- so that they will not become queens themselves -- the larvae will form silky cocoons in which they will pupate into adult worker bees. Only when they emerge will the queen's duties be reduced. The workers will begin to take over foraging and will help with the care of subsequent broods as well.
Yes, bumblebees do sting and unlike honeybees that can only strike once, an individual bumblebee can do so again and again because its stinger is not barbed. They seldom do so, however. They are docile insects focused on their important work for, like honeybees, bumblebees are wonderful pollinators. They play this role not just in our gardens but in our wild areas as well. You can support these important insects in your yard next spring by placing some dried grass inside an inverted flower pot to serve as a nest site. The hole in the pot's base provides an entrance.
An aside: This bumblebee was visiting an early-blooming honeysuckle. There is also a late-flowering species. Many honeysuckles, especially the alien Japanese variety, are looked upon with disfavor by environmentalists for they are weedy shrubs and vines that displace native shrubs in our woodlands. But these early and late-blooming forms serve pollinators well by providing nectar and pollen during off-seasons when the insects' smorgasbord of food sources is severely limited. If you think of planting a fragrant honeysuckle, consider one of them.-- Gerry Rising