Today was another bumblebee hunt day. I was sitting in the sunny south-facing living room window around 2 pm, sluggish and trying to get myself out of the chair. Suddenly a Red-butt bumblebee queen (B. melanopygus) came bouncing around the window. The hunter-gatherer in me woke up abruptly and was more than ready to go outside.
So I gathered up camera, binoculars, sketchbook and insect collecting cup and went out the front door, juggling all these things as I went down the steps. Suddenly, eight feet ahead of me I saw a Red-butt: she seemed to be checking out some early orange crocus we have blooming along the walkway. I promptly dropped everything but the camera and managed to get a few shots of her, with her head deep in the flower taking in nectar, and her wide-load butt hanging over the edge.
Until last year, I was never much of a fan of crocus. But some field work last March changed my mind. I came home from a bumblebee survey around 4:15 pm. The sun was leaving the yard and the temperature was dropping rapidly. My eyes happened to catch the sight of a Red-butt bumblebee curled up in a white/purple crocus along the walkway. As I approached closely to check, she did not move. She almost appeared to be dead, though groggy movements of legs convinced me otherwise.
I knew the night was expected to get down in the 20’s. In a panic, I collected her along with the flower and brought her inside. I put her in a box away from the bustle of the house, and let her stay overnight. I did some quick research and found out that bumblebees like a solution of half sucrose, half water. I quickly made some up and added it to the box.
Throughout all this she barely moved. The next morning she barely moved. I put a dry towel in her cup, as she appeared both wet and disheveled. By noon, when I checked again, she had clearly groomed the wet off her fur, along with some crocus pollen, and looked normal, albeit groggy. I decided to put her outside in some heath flowers. She continued to be very sluggish. I left the house for work; by the time I returned around 3:00 pm, she had disappeared.
What I now believe is that these late winter queens spend much of their time in a torpid state, holding on to their reserves until better conditions arise. I think their active time of day in late winter is between 2 and 4 pm. I think now that as the temperatures dropped, she chose that crocus. Now I believe that I should have just let her alone. She knew what she was doing.
As it turns out, crocus flowers CLOSE UP at night, wrapping the bee in a protective floral cocoon. The crocus are full of both nectar and pollen so if the bee does wake up, she has food ready at hand. Finally, the crocus flower is tuned to the sun; it will not open up the next morning until it has the full life-giving rays of the sun on it. So in a way, it acts as a wake-up call for the torpid bee.
The bees know what they are doing. My job is to learn to trust them.
Resources: The Xerces Society www.xerces.org