Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The First Queen Red-Butt Bumblebee

Yesterday was a good day to go hunting for queen bumblebees. I’d been watching the Weather Channel, looking ahead for the right kind of day: early February, sunny, 50 degrees+, so I knew this day was coming. The spring bumblebees have also taught me that 2-4 pm on such days is the prime time, so I scheduled my day accordingly.

I went over to the mobile home park in Tumwater that is one of my preferred hunting grounds. I drove up to an old, very well-established hedge of heather that gets strong afternoon sun. And viola! As I drove up, I saw my first queen of the season: Bombus melanopygus. It was a great moment: full of joy, and a certain pleasure that I had learned enough about the bees to be able to predict how to find them.

This queen Red-Butt ( yes, we call them that, however rude it is: it’s very memorable) was probably born in May 2008. She came out of her hive a virgin; she probably spent a month or so feeding on pollen & nectar, especially from rhododendrons, helping restock the hive. She also likely found a male drone and began to carry his sperm. By the end of May, she found a place to live for the next several months: she chose a protected shady bank of soil, and began to dig. She dug out a long tunnel; finally at the end, deep enough to protect her, she created a small chamber called a hibernaculum. Here she curled up and sank into a deep torpor.

After eight months underground, the lengthening, warming days have helped her stir from her torpor. I also believe she may be able to smell the fragrance of the first flowers, and this may call her out. However it happens, she awoke. She dug herself back out of her hibernaculum and emerged into the sun. Here she angled the top of her thorax to warm herself from the sun’s rays, groomed off the dirt, used the scent plates on her antennae to find the smell of nectar and launched herself into the world once again.

I watched this queen bee for ten minutes. She was moving a little slow, but was very purposeful in her activity, clambering over the tiny heather blossoms, unfolding her tongue sheath, and probing inside the flowers for nectar. This life-giving nectar is critical to her survival in the next several cold weeks.

As the sun lowered in the sky, she finally took off, heading west northwest. She may return to her hibernaculum, or find another sheltered place to spend the night. As the days go on, she will start to seek out a place to build her hive: a mouse hole in the ground, a birdbox with last year’s chickadee nest, the wall of a cedar house where her mother may have nested the year before. Here she starts her own small hive, and the whole cycle of life begins again.

Hunting these bees has been a solitary pleasure, as few other people even know about them. But Glen and I have been teaching a class on our native pollinators; it was with great pleasure and pride that I arrived home after my own successful hunt and found an email/ photo from one of our students Bill Hansen, who had also seen his first Red-Butt Queen today.

And so the cycle of life goes on...

Thanks to Bill Hansen for his photo of the Queen on the white heather.


  1. Hi! I just wanted to let you know you have a very interesting and well written blog. You do a great job of intertwining natural history with your observations. I followed your link on tweeters, so I am much more of a bird person, but now I may have to go out and buy a bee field guide!
    Thanks again for an entertaining blog!

  2. Interesting information, just the other day I noticed several large "red butts" gathering sweets from willow buds...

  3. Just saw a HUGE bumble bee on the back deck. It has a rusty red colour 'butt' and I am wondering it this is a 'red butt bumble bee'? I have never seen this type before. I live on the West Coast of British Columbia.

  4. i am terrified of bees ,but i have just seen the most beautiful red butt bumble bee , i had to look it up as i have never seen one before. trully beautiful

  5. I was walking around my backyard when I saw a bumblebee with two rows of bright red on its back. I've never seen a bumble bee with red on it before, so I found this page while searching for an explanation. The bee was stopping along the ground, checking out areation holes.

  6. here in oregon march 2012 am very allergic to bees and what do i find in this cold weather of snow and sun in my kitchen window but a big red butt bee i was worried it was poison so looked it up on the internet. this bee is huge and very red and the wings on her were very large.

  7. I was on my lunch today and was told there was a big bee behind me in the shop! I turned around and it was huge with a red "butt"! So had to look it up as i have never seen one like that before! So now i can say i have officially seen a Queen Red Butt Bee! (even though i am petrified of the tings:) ) Very informative read!

  8. I live in Wisconsin and I have seen 2 bumble bees with red butts so far this spring. The first one was larger and was seen in mid May, 2016. The second one was much smaller which I saw June 14th, 2016. Both were feeding on my Bleeding Hearts. I have never seen this species before. We always have a bumble bee nest somewhere by our house every year, but they are the normal big black & yellow ones. Seeing a bumble bee with a red butt is very novel!

    1. It is wonderful seeing Bumbles as well as other bees. The timing that you describe makes me think that first you saw a queen bumble, and then, 4 weeks later, a first generation worker; size is their main difference The bumbles we see in the Pacific North West and the ones you see in Wisconsin are probably different -- in North America are close to 50 different species. The most likely red backed b-bees in Wisconsin by my reading are Bombus tenarius and B. rufocinctus.

      Here are some good resources for your area (you have to cut and paste the links):

      Befriending Bumble Bees PDF book U of MN with photo guide in back

      Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States PDF Book
      (Western guide also available)
      Also, three national resources that we have links to on our side bar.
      Xerces Society Bumble Bee Watch
      Discover Life

      happy viewing

  9. I just moved an old wood birdhouse from it's hook and out buzzed 3 or 4 bees with red butts! Never have seen them before but they are very pretty even though they seemed quite perturbed at being disturbed. My back yard is in Lake Oswego, OR next to a large wooded park. Glad to see healthy bees!