Don’t Kill That Queen!

Those big, black-and-yellow bumblebees that you’ve been seeing lately are bumblebee queens looking for a nesting site and foraging for nectar and pollen.They do look menacing, if only because they’re so large, but they won’t harm you. So, you should not harm them.They’re too busy looking for a suitable nesting site and building their hive to bother with you. If a bumblebee queen is killed, that is the end of the hive; each bumblebee hive typically produces about a thousand bumble bees in a year.

Bumblebee queens are the only bumblebee to overwinter in the ground, in little spaces they choose  late in the fall. All the worker bees die.In spring, the queens come out of their winter nests   (hibernatoria) and begin to hunt for a suitable place to build their underground hive (generally from late March through mid-June). After they have found a suitable location, they begin to build the tunnels and rooms that become the hive.They also begin to lay fertilized eggs that will become the workers. After the female worker bees mature (about three weeks), they take over the task of foraging for nectar and pollen for the hive.The queen then stays in the hive for the rest of her life.Eventually, she will make some fertilized eggs to produce virgin queens and lay unfertilized eggs that become males.Long-story short: the males fertilize   virgin queens as they leave the nest; once inseminated, the queens search for their hibernatorium; all the workers and the old queen die in the late autumn, completing the annual life cycle.

Bumblebees are among the most efficient pollinators around–perhaps as much as 10 times more efficient than honeybees. Bumblebees are very hairy and can hold a lot of pollen on their bodies. They also mix nectar with pollen to make a sticky ball that they glue to a special part of their hind legs.The rate that bumblebees visit a flower is faster than the visit of honeybees. Bumblebees also can fly from flower to flower faster than honeybees, and they can fly at lower temperatures and explore darker and more diverse habitats than honeybees. Although both honeybees and bumblebees are classified as generalists (i.e., they pollinate many different flowering species), bumblebees can pollinate crops such as tomatoes and peppers (crops of the family Solanaceae) that honeybees avoid. 

In short, although honeybees are having their problems in terms of population numbers, bumblebees may be able to cover for them in fields and with crops that require insect pollination. Even crops that are wind-pollinated have increased yields when insects pollinate them. As you may know, honeybees are not native to Northeast Ohio; rather, they are native to Europe and likely evolved in the Middle East or Asia. Bumblebees are native to North America and therefore may not be as susceptible to diseases as honeybees. Scientists just don’t know that for sure. Honeybees have been studied extensively because of their economic significance; native bees are only now coming under increased scrutiny for their pollination capabilities.

Part of the effort to understand the abundance and distribution of bumblebees in Ohio is being coordinated by the Bee Lab in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, at Ohio State University.

 

Two statewide surveys are under way. The first survey focuses on bumblebee queens searching for a suitable location to develop their hive. The second survey aims to identify when and where bumblebee queens forage for nectar and pollen. This survey is done entirely by looking and primarily by volunteers such as myself. Volunteers do not capture the queens and instead identify the bee species on the fly–something that is easier said than done for a novice like me. I photograph them and then identify the species from the photos. Both surveys will last through June and then be analyzed by Dr. Jessie Lanterman, a post-doctoral professor in the Bee Lab.Stay tuned for the results to be reported at a later date.

–Bob Heath

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