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.