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The Humble Bumble Bee, Your garden's work horse
July 21, 2008

We are zooming through the month of July aren't we?

Welcome new readers, hopefully we will become friends.

Stick around.

We are in the middle of what historically is the warmest two weeks of the year, and Summer is here in Michigan, as we finally had a stretch of hot humid days, followed by some rain.

The heat has walks with the fur kids down some. Throw in some mosquitoes and you get my drift.

Okay, so The first day of summer is in June, but the warmest days are in mid July, what gives with that?

Because the earth's atmosphere is so vast, it takes about a month for it to heat up and cool down.

Days continue to grow shorter, and even though the days are hot, I can tell the sun is sitting different by the way it beats on me.

Mama wren is sitting in the nest box now, I expect to hear the sound of little wrenletts any day now.

The garden center where I work is over run with robins right now.

That's good, I enjoy robins.

The fledged Red-tail hawk is still hanging around. She's not a vocal now days, but she sure is cause for alarm from all the other birds.

I can get about 20 feet from hr before she takes off.

What a beautiful bird. Added to the list of fledglings at my feeders is a scruffy headed downy woodpecker.

The sick girls are feeling much better, though Yolanda still has some chest congestion.

For all the newbies, I like to make the newsletters a bit homey and down to earth, so mention Karen my wife, Yolanda our daughter (Adult, brain injured), Akita, (Keet) Ziggy (poodle pup) are the dogs and from time to time I mention the house cats, Lorna and Bobbi Sue.

In the hot humid weather, you want to make sure you keep your birdbaths cleaned and filled with fresh water.

Not only will the birds appreciate, but you may catch a butterfly or a few bees getting a drink as well.

Continue to deadhead your annuals. Feed and water them accordingly.

Tomatoes are root intensive and heavy feeders as well.

To avoid blossom end rot, keep the maters watered, especially if they are in pots.

Young Blue jays are regular visitors to my feeders............ can they make some noise.

The past couple of weeks, I wrote on natural disasters, "Nature's" Checks and balances and people messing with nature.

A dear reader and friend Nancy Ann of Malin, Oregon sent me a recent article from her "AAA monthly magazine for Oregon and Idaho.

The article is on the 20 year remberence of the great fires of Yellow Stone National Park.

The article talks more about the celebration of life than the destruction by the fires.

How new growth pops up every where and wildlife is thriving. Sure the landscape is scared, but new life is every where.

God knows what he is doing.............. He is alwasy in control.

Thanks for the article NA, I with others could've read it.

Karen and I will be gone from Thursday through Sunday so don't worry if I don't answer mail right away.

We are heading off to Petoskey where every year we spend two or three days at the "Ginger Bread House" a Victorian "Bed and Breakfast" On the "Little Traverse Bay" of Lake Michigan.

It gives her a chance to shop some quaint shops and I get a chance to relax some.

This week I'm going to touch on the Bumble Bee.

It may be a bit long, but there are some interesting things on the Humble Bumble.


Bumble bees (Bombus species)

Bumble bees are large, attractive insects that are of interest to children, scientists, beekeepers, naturalists, conservationist, home gardeners, farmers and commercial bumble bee breeders.

There are roughly 50 species of Bumble bees that inhabit virtually the whole North American Continent which vary in size and coloration.

These highly beneficial insects pollinate many native plants, home-grown fruits and vegetables and agricultural crops.

Though Bumble bees are highly social insects, their colonies are not perennial in nature as honey bees. They do not store a surplus of honey, which can be harvested.

Bumble bee populations in nature fluctuate from year to year depending on many factors including weather, parasites and predators.


They're big, fuzzy insects recognized by almost everyone by their robust shape and black and yellow coloration.

The common species are 3/4 inch in length or more. Like honey bees, Bumble bees live in a colony where the adults care for the young (larvae) produced by a single queen.

Bumble bee nests are small compared to honey bees, as each nest contains at peak season contains from about one hundred to a few hundred individuals. Also unlike honey bees, a bumble bee nest is annual and is used only one year and then abandoned.

Bumble bees usually nest in the ground in a deserted mouse nest or bird nest. Occasionally they nest in cavities within a wall or an old wood pile.

The Bumble bee's black or yellow hairy abdomen, which is a character that can be used to differentiate it from a carpenter bee, which has a black, shiny, hairless abdomen.

The foraging bumble bee has a large pollen basket on each hind leg that is often loaded with pollen.

The Bumble bee queens are typically twice a large as workers or males.

A female Bumble bee has a pointed abdomen with a stinger. Males do not have a stinger and the tip of the abdomen is rounded.

Life Cycle

The Bumble bee colony is made up of three types of individuals (queen, undeveloped female workers and males).

Bumble bees produce annual colonies, only the mated queens over winter (survive the winter).

Nests are started in early spring by these solitary, fertilized queens.

These queens are often seen feeding on spring flowers or searching for a suitable nest site. Normally, nests are established in an abandoned rodent or bird nest in the ground.

The solitary queen begins the colony by collecting pollen and forming it into a small lump. She lays five to twenty worker eggs on this pollen.

After four to five days, the eggs hatch into larvae (immature forms), which begin to feed on the lump of pollen.

The young larvae receive all the fats, minerals, proteins and vitamins that are necessary for growth from the pollen.

The queen collects more pollen and nectar to feed this first brood cycle.

It takes about 21 days to develop from egg to adult.

Once the first brood develops, they take over all the colony duties, except egg laying. The adult workers defend the colony, collect pollen and nectar, and feed the larvae.

Maintaining dominance

Bumble bee queens appear to maintain dominance purely by aggressive behavior, though it is believed that a dominant queen secretes a pheromone that suppresses the glands in workers that would otherwise lead to their ovaries developing.

In many species the queen is bigger than the workers, she uses her size to dominate workers by opening her mandibles and head-butting the most dominant worker from time to time.

This is usually sufficient until unfertilized eggs are laid, or a worker's ovaries develop.

Although Bumble bees produce nectar, the quantity produced is not enough to make it worth while domesticating them as has been done with honey bees.

Nectar is collected and stored in small sac-like "honey pots" built from wax and pollen. The workers enlarge the nest and by midsummer the colony will have 20 to 100 workers.

By late summer, the colony may have several hundred Bumbles.

The colony produces new queens and males in late summer.

They leave the nest to take mating flights that look like aerial dances.

The successfully mated queens fly to the ground and hibernate 2 to 5 inches deep in the soil. The production signals the end of the colony’s life.

The over wintering queens emerge the next spring to complete their life cycle.

Feeling threatened

How do you know if you are upsetting a Bumble bee?

Bumble bees are busy and will ignore you unless you do something to make the bee feel threatened. Even then, the Humble Bumble will let you know in its own way.

It's quite simple really.

If the bee is on a flower or other surface and is feeling threatened it will raise one of its middle legs. This is a sign that you are too close and should back off a bit.

Sometimes when I pet Bumble bees it will raise the middle leg and other times she is slow to do so.

Petting one of these hairy insects is quite easy to do on cool days.

In cool weather the bee may even fall to the ground to avoid you, as it hasn't built up enough heat to fly off. .

Sometimes a Bumble will let out a high pitched buzz to let me know its now or never.

I am paranoid about bees and bare feet.

As a 10 year old boy, I unknowingly stepped on a large Bumble bee.

Oh baby did that hurt and I confess, I cried. For a couple of days, I had no arch in my right foot.

I still like to walk around bare foot in my lawn, but you can bet there isn't any clover or anything else blooming in my grass.

I like my bees where I can see them.


Bumble bees are vegetarian at all stages of their life.

The workers gather pollen and nectar. Pollen is a good source of protein.

Most of the pollen is fed to the larva, and the workers and males eat very little - they live on nectar that has been turned to honey. The queen eats pollen to give her protein for egg formation.

So, Bumble bees get all their food from flowers.

Male behavior

Once males leave the nest they do not go back, so they have to find somewhere to spend the night. Hanging underneath the heads of flowers or even getting right into them is what they normally do.

Their temperatures will drop and by morning they will have used up their stores of energy, so until they warm up by either drinking nectar or sitting in the sun or both, they will appear listless and sick.

Actually, they are just males who have spent the day chasing queens and drinking nectar and then stayed out all night.

Some guys never learn, even in the animal kingdom.

Okay, you've stuck with me this long, here comes some of the good information on the Humble Bumble.

The Humble Bumble Bee,

To big and clumsy to fly according to science. Not aerodynamic and other silly things. (Never under estimate our Creator, however.)

Bumble bees are often the earliest bees out of hibernation in early Spring and some of the last bees we see in the cool of Autumn.

Bumble bees are often the earliest bees out of hibernation in early Spring and some of the last bees we see in the cool of Autumn.

The Humble Bumble

You may think it is the fat hairy body that keep the bumble bee warm so it can withstand the cools of Spring and Fall. In fact, the Bumble bee is unique, it shivers much like we do to warm up its body temperature and to stay warm. The cooler the body Temperature, the faster the bee vibrates to warm up.

Bumble bees seem to prefer the color purple, but see in Ultra Violet which means they see colors we can't see and explains why they fly to our yellow and white vegetable garden flowers.

Okay, so why are Bumble bees the Prime pollinator of my tomato plants?

The best pollinator for tomatoes is the Bumble bee which "sonicated" at the resonant frequency of the flower. Sonication, also called buzz pollination is when the bee vibrates its wing muscles but doesn't fly; it just hangs on.

The reason is that tomato pollen is not in the exterior of the anthers like most flowers, rather it is produced internally and then released thru pores in the anther. Motion is required to release the pollen, and the greatest quantity is released by sonication of the correct frequency. However other bees with different frequency, or even shaking by wind will release some pollen.

There are a couple problems: one is that the natural pollinator (a wild bee) didn't travel with the tomato as it was spread throughout the world. The other is that the flower is not very attractive to other bees, and when bee populations are low the tomato generally gets ignored, plus some bees don't have the right "Buzz Technique."

Bumble bees are the most often seen on tomatoes, though honeybees, when hungry enough will also work them, as will some solitary bees.

Did you ever watch a Bumble bee work a tomato blossom?

When it does, it pulls the flower down into a vertical position, puts its fat belly against the stigma, and buzzes.

The pollen that is released, now will fall by gravity (since the flower is now tilting down) directly to the bee's fuzzy (and statically charged) belly, which is rubbing against the sticky stigma as it vibrates. Tomatoes are self fertile, but the pollen can come from any other tomato that the bee has visited.

The size of the fruit is dependent on the number of ovules fertilized, up to the 100% mark. In other words, the more seeds, the meatier the tomato.

So we want to get pollination as full as possible. This is the reason this bee is best, it delivers the most grains of pollen, exactly where it is needed, on the sticky surface of the stigma.

Side Bar:

If you lack bees in your tomato patch, tap the plants several times when you walk by. this helps distribute the pollen and gives you more fruits.

Bumble bees are also the main pollinator for beens, peas, pumpkins, squash and often for melons.

Bumbles bees take on the not so glamorous blooms. like peas and beans.

For squashes and pumpkins, Bumbles can get there hairy, strong, fat body and long tongue into place other pollinators can't.

Bumble bees will often use their powerful legs to pry open flowers like Snap dragons to get at the nectar. If they don't feel like prying flowers open, they use their powerful jaws and chew a hole near the base of a flower and get the nectar that way.

Bumble bees have pollen sacks on their back legs. I'm sure you have noticed Bumbles with pollen attached to the legs and yellow all over their body.

Bumbles on average will return to the nest carrying an extra 25% of its body weight in pollen. While foraging it will eat another 10% of body weight.

Flying from flower to flower is hard work.

Not only can Bumbles see (Ultra Violet) when a flower is ready to be had, they can also smell if another bumble bee has been there and tends to leave that blossom alone.

I am blessed to have several Bumble bees this year and my garden shows it.

Karen thinks I'm a bit crazy for walking in and around the plants and bees, as long as I don't mess with them, they are to busy with their job to mess with me.

Worker Bumble bees have a short life of around four weeks. Visiting between 10 and 18 flowers a minute, a single bumble can get a lot accomplished in a four week period.

As far as bees go, Bumble bees are the "Gentle Giant." It takes some doing to get them mad enough to sting unless you "step on them" or try to catch one.

Bumbles have a smooth, sharp stinger and can repeat sting. They're not like the Honey bee with a barbed stinger that is one and done.

Bumbles are the every day " Joe " when it comes to our gardens, taking on the tough jobs and the unglamorous jobs, but jobs that "Nature" needs taken care of.

Bumble bees are now used exclusively for greenhouse pollination.

In Europe the quest for a better "greenhouse Bumble bee" has brought back to North America unknown viruses.

If these viruses escape into our wild bee populations, we can expect Bumble bee colony collapse the same way we experienced it with European honey bees.

Natural Enemies

Probably more Bumble bees are killed by parasites than by predators.

This may be because the bumblebee females are armed with a sting, but it is also due to the protection given by their warning coloration.

Some Crab spiders ambush Bumble bees at flowers, and a few species of bird can remove the sting before eating the Bumble bee, e.g. bee-eaters, spotted flycatchers and shrikes.

In the U. S. and Canada there are wasps called beewolves these wasps specialise in hunting bumblebees.

The Bumble bee is caught while feeding and is paralyzed with a sting, it is taken back to the nest and enclosed with a wasp egg in a cell, there are usually about five Bumble bees in each cell.

Other predators are small mammals, badgers, foxes, and minks, skunks and bears. All break open and destroy nests to eat the larvae, bees and food stores, but there are no vertebrate predators that specialize in Bumble bees.


Since Bumble bees are excellent pollinators, we should encourage management strategies that help maintain and increase wild colonies.

Bumbles bees’ natural nesting habitat has been drastically decreased by industrial and residential expansion.

Large farm monoculture practices are also detrimental to good nesting sites.

A way to encourage bumble bee nesting is to set aside uncultivated farm land or hedgerows that are attractive to queens searching for nesting sites.

Queens are not too selective as long as the potential nesting site is a dark, underground cavity filled with fine plant fiber.

Acceptable nest sites include a burrow beneath an old tree stump or an abandoned rodent nest.


Amateur naturalists and children may learn much by observing bumble bees on flowers attractive to the bees. Through simple observation of foraging bumble bees, children can identify pollen loads by using color charts and study flowers constancy by following individually marked bees.


Although bumble bees are normally harmless when foraging, a disturbed colony can be nasty.

Guard beesstand ready to protect the nest against predators, including skunks and man.

The worker bumble bee can sting repeatedly without sacrificing her life. Precautions should be taken when working or playing in areas that are likely to be inhabited by bumble bees.

This is especially true when mowing fields or trimming weeds around trash or wood piles. A bee veil and hat are highly recommended during summer and fall when doing these activities.

If a colony is disturbed, a person should slowly walk away with both hands covering the face.

It is best to walk toward dense vegetation or enter a vehicle or building to escape the stinging insects. Swift movements will only attract more bumble bees.

Persons highly sensitive to bee stings should always carry a sting treatment kit during outdoor activities. To reduce swelling following a stinging incident, a person may use several sting remedies .

A convenient material to place on the sting site is moistened table salt. Mound the salt on the sting entry point and moisten with a few drops of water. Leave the salt on the site for several minutes.

This procedure must be applied within three to four minutes following the stinging incident to be effective.

If a colony becomes life-threatening to humans, the bumble bees should be considered pests and eliminated.

However, if at all possible let the nest die out naturally in the fall.

A Bumble bee nest should not be disturbed or destroyed because of its high pollination value.

Well, I hope you have picked up some information and have a different out look at Bumble bees now.

It's time to fly for now,.

Before I go, here is your thought for the week.

Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Irish Playwright

A clean mind and a clean body, makes for a clean spirit.

A clean spirit is a happy one and happy spirit's "SMILE."

Smile brighten the world and make you more happy.

Smile today and everyday.

Share our smiles, give them to friends and strangers.

You can make the difference in a person's life and that has to be worth another smile.

Until next time my friend.

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our

Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

PS. If you enjoy these letters, please forward them to friends, family and co-workers. Better yet, have them sign up so they can recieve their own letters.

Gardening For Wildlife.

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