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Speaking of Nature

Kids & Critters: The bumblebee

The wonderful thing about August is the fact that the summer has become so well established that we enter a time that I call, “deep summer.” School has been out for a few weeks, parties have been planned and hosted and now we just have the lazy days of summer before school starts up again.

These are the days for going to parksor playing in the meadow behind the house. These are the days for catching frogs and snakes, fishing in the local pond or going for long walks with friends. I did this sort of thing last weekend with my wife and we had a wonderful time. She was particularly taken with a group of bumblebees that were pollinating some hasta flowers and that got me to thinking about bumblebees myself.

If you live and play in western Massachusetts, you are likely to be familiar with only two types of bees — the honeybee and the bumblebee. What you may not be familiar with is the fact that the honeybee is not native to North America. The Europeans who settled this continent brought honeybees with them but, upon their arrival, the Europeans did find other bees that were endemic to North America — the bumblebees.

But the name bumblebee is somewhat misleading because there are more than 250 different species of insects that fall into this category. However, they do all share some similar features that help us to differentiate them from honeybees.

A honeybee would best be described as sort of a dull orange color with black stripes on the abdomen. One could also say that a honeybee is relatively small and not at all “furry.” In contrast, bumblebees can get to be quite large. With so many species to choose from there are definitely a variety of color patterns to see, but, for the most part, bumblebees tend to be yellow-and-black and noticeably “fuzzy.”

The life history of bumblebees is actually rather similar to honeybees. A fertile female bumblebee (called a queen) will mate with male “drones” and then go off to start a hive of her own. The female keeps her eggs separate from the sperm that was provided by the males. When she lays her eggs, she can control if the eggs are fertilized or not. Non-fertilized eggs will turn into female worker bees, while fertilized eggs will become males.

One of the interesting things about bumblebees is that since they are native to this area, they don’t form the large hives that are found in the honeybee, which was originally found in the warmer areas of southeast Asia. Bumblebees don’t generate the massive colonies that produce huge amounts of honey. Instead, a full-sized bumblebee hive is probably going to contain no more than a 100 individuals.

What is truly fascinating about bumblebee societies is the fact that the female workers can also lay eggs. In the first stages of a hive, the queen bee is the only adult. When her first batch of daughters finally emerge from their cells, she can keep them in line with a combination of physical aggression and pheromones (chemical signals). But as the hive grows, she starts to lose control of all her offspring and some workers lay eggs. Eventually, some workers may even mate, which gives them the ability to produce male offspring.

Once this happens, the new queens and males will go off into the world to try their hand at starting their own hives. Meanwhile, the original queen will start eating as much as she can to put on enough fat to make it through the winter.

For now, however, the bumblebees are busily visiting the flowers in our fields and gardens in an effort to collect food for their younger sisters. The next time we have a rainy morning or you are looking for something quiet to do after lunch, why don’t you draw a picture of a bumblebee? You can pick any color for the flower, but you need black and yellow for the body. Take a photo of your picture and e-mail it to me and I’ll even post it on my website.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit
www.speakingofnature.com.

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