Vail Daily column: The queen bee awakes
Vail, CO Colorado
A bumblebee queen’s spring begins like the zombie apocalypse: Wake up, crawl out of the earth, and find something to eat. The significant difference is that bumblebee queens disinter themselves from a winter-long sleep, whereas zombies arise as the un-dead. In fact, there may be many significant differences between the two, but by no means should the plight of the bumblebee be overlooked. Bumblebees are critical keystones of our ecosystem and food production, and they deserve a little appreciation.
Unlike honeybees, bumblebee queens have no hive in which to spend the winter. The queen is alone between fall and spring, buried under tree roots or some other protected nook. When she wakes up, she warms her body by vibrating her wings. This, along with their thick hair, means bumblebees are specially adapted for cold weather and high altitudes. Bumblebees are some of spring’s first foragers.
The queen begins the year as a busy, busy bee indeed. After her Richard Simmons warm-up, the queen is desperately hungry; she has survived for months on fat reserves, and will soon have mouths to feed. She collects nectar for herself, and pollen to develop her ovaries. She then sets out to build her nest in an old mouse hole or abandoned bird nest. In it she lays several eggs mixed with pollen, and sits tight while the eggs develop into larvae. Weeks later, the newest members of the nest emerge as small female worker bumblebees. The hive has begun!
The colony will grow to about 150 bumblebees, much smaller than the typical honeybee hive of more than 10,000 strong. Bumblebees will attack to defend their hive. Unlike their honey-sweet cousins, they do not have barbed stingers and can sting multiple times. But this doesn’t make the hive intruder-proof. Lurking in Colorado’s wilds are cuckoo bumblebees – the evil stepmothers of the insect world.
The cuckoo queen rejects toil; she is a matriarch of deceit. She waits for a founding bumblebee queen to establish a hive and raise enough workers to ensure its survival. Then the cuckoo queen sneaks in and assassinates the host queen while the other bumblebees are too busy to pay attention. The insidious cuckoo queen lays her eggs in the hive’s brood cups. In little time the cuckoo queen’s larval army has overthrown the hive and enslaved the original bumblebee workers to the chores of the nest. None of the cuckoo brood can make wax, store pollen, or otherwise contribute to the hive. They simply linger and enjoy the fruits of another bee’s labor.
Cuckoo bumblebees aren’t the only languorous members of the bumblebee world: there are males, too. The queen and her workers are all female, but eventually the hive becomes strong enough to support hangers-on, and the queen produces male drones. They do not forage or feed the brood. They are stinger-less and cannot defend the hive. The drone’s singular purpose is to mate.
The female workers are far more assiduous than their brothers. They raise the young, and even more importantly, they collect pollen. Bumblebees are fantastic pollinators, and numerous commercial crops in Colorado – peppers, tomatoes, melons – depend on them. Bumblebees have a special “buzz” pollination technique by which they grab the anthers of flower in their mandibles, and shake. The pollen rains down upon the bumblebee’s thick hair, some of which is collected for the hive. The rest is spread to other flowers in that simple act of pollination that makes the world we know possible.
As the seasons turn and the flowers die, so do the rest of the bumblebees. Only the young queens, freshly fertilized by drones, survive the year. Ahead of these queens is a long hibernation, followed by an arduous spring. But you can help make their year a little easier by eschewing pesticides and preserving wildflower habitats. Oh, and wish them luck. Without these special pollinators we’d face a future far scarier than anything with zombies.
Sam Clark was a beekeeping intern with Oude Raapkrall Apiaries in Muizenberg, South Africa in 2011 and is a guest contributor to Walking Mountains Science Center’s Curious Nature column. Currently, he lives with his mom, and apparently really likes bugs, but otherwise has potential.