Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Bumble Bees
Nature Bulletin No. 65   May 11, 1946
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Superintendent of Conservation

Walking through the fields in early spring, occasionally you will see a big bumblebee flying slowly and very low. That is a queen, only the queens survive from last year' s colonies. For six or more months she has hibernated in the ground, alone and without food. Now she is sipping nectar from the early flowers and accumulating their pollen on her hairy body.

From time to time she will comb this pollen into "baskets" on her hind legs. When her hunger is satisfied and the pollen baskets are full, she searches for a suitable nesting place in the ground -- frequently the abandoned den of a field mouse. There she mixes the pollen with nectar into a little loaf of beebread. and on it she lays a few eggs which she covers with wax secreted from her abdomen. She also makes a thimble- like pot which she fills with honey. Then she broods over the eggs, meanwhile feeding on the honey.

When the larvae hatch they feed on the beebread and burrow into it. Eventually they emerge as adult females, sterile and much smaller than the queen. These are "workers". They take over the job of gathering nectar and pollen and of rearing more workers. From then on, the queen lays eggs -- period.

Late in summer a few young queens and a few males or "drones" are produced. The drones are lazy stingless creatures which do nothing but eat and mate with the young queens. As the nights grow colder the workers die, then the males, and finally the old queen. Each of the young queens find 8 herself a cozy retreat in the ground and goes to sleep. Her job starts next spring.

The common violet, the adder's tongue, the trailing arbutus and the Dutchman' 8 Breeches are some spring flowers that depend upon the early-flyer queen bumblebee for their pollination and reproduction. The bumblebee, with its long tongue, is apparently the only insect that can reach the nectar inside the flower of the Dutchman's Breeches, for example, and of the red clover that is such an important farm crop.

Gentlemen, tip your hats to the next lady bumblebee you see.

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