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.
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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Update: June 2012