Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Nevada Bumblebee

    So it was July 29th, a hot sunny Friday afternoon around 5:30 pm.  I don’t handle heat well;   I was inside sucking down ice cubes and grumpily trying to finish a project on the computer.  Glen had been outside gardening, though I noticed he had been taking a break, standing in the neighbors’ front yard by their lavender bushes, gossiping.  I was grumpy about that, too.

So when he came barging in the house and bellowed: “JANET”  my first thought was that either he had sliced open his foot with the shovel (at the very least) or he had found something good.  When he went on to say: “You have GOT TO COME SEE THIS”, I knew he must have something really fabulous.

     This is what he had:  a Nevada Bumblebee queen (Bombus nevadensis nevadensis), which had flown into the lavender bushes where he had managed to catch her.  She was huge in the insect cup, buzzing ominously and oh, so gorgeous!  I was struck with awe, and fascination, and a burgeoning, insatiable curiosity about this animal.

      This was a first time for this species for us.    We’ve been dedicated bumblebee watchers for many years, and serious about it since winter 2008.  We (Glen, Nancy and I) have  seen literally thousands of bumblebees in our well-developed pollinator gardens.  We’ve gotten pretty good at identification, too (not easy) and we thought we had seen just about everything Thurston county had to offer. Not so.

     How do we know this species?  I didn’t at first;  I pulled out my bumblebee identification flashcards for Thurston County (yes, I know, it sounds funny, but it works) and thumbed through them.  Nevada bumblebees are large (this was the biggest BB I’d ever seen), with black faces, yellow fur on the thorax with a central dark mark, and yellow on the abdomen from segments 2-4.  Bingo.  We had a match.

      This particular bumblebee was a queen, based on size, pollen baskets and a few other technical details.  Her wings were very fresh and crumpled;  she was really too easy to catch and quite dozy as we took pictures.  This is strongly suggestive she had just emerged from her hibernaculum in the soil and was getting ready to get her nest going.  We’ve worked with quite a few  just-emerged queens (usually in February) and they take awhile to get  over being buried for nine months in the ground. 

     We called Nancy,  who raced over with her camera and took several pictures .  Again, queen Nevada cooperated, quite docile.  After about 10 minutes of this, Glen put her back on the lavender blossoms, where she tanked up on some nectar.  You can see her here, almost sleepy on the blossoms;  this is typical of a newly emerged queen.

    Finally she took off, flying strongly to the north east.  We have not seen her since.

     It’s been several days since then, and we’ve been trying to read up on this species.  The Nevada bumblebee  is more common in the Great Plains states and is often found at mid-elevations.   It had been thought to be in Thurston County, though nobody has mentioned any specific sightings before.  I think about the Black Hills, which are ~2,000 feet altitude, and perhaps 3 miles away as the bumblebee flies. Maybe this is where she was born?

     In Alberta, Canada, where they have researched these bees, they have found the queens to nest underground in abandoned mouse burrows, or in abandoned bird nests in boxes. So they have a wide range of nest choices.  I think of  our chickadee nest box, which we hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out.  Maybe she will find it? 

     For now, her job is to find a nest site and get a brood of ~12 worker bees going.  This will take about a month.  During that month she will mostly sit on her larvae, warming them and helping them grow.  She will make occasional forays for pollen and nectar.  Once these worker bees emerge, they will take over the chore of provisioning the  nest, and she will spend the rest of her life as an egg-laying machine, finally producing near the end of her life the queens who will carry her genes into next year and the future.

     All of this takes about 3-4  months.  While Nevada Bumblebees are known to be a late-emerging species, July 29th is really pushing it.  If we have a cold wet September, she may not win her race against time.  But I hope against hope that she will.

    I have a picture of this beauty as my screen saver.  I keep thinking about her, wondering how she is doing and wondering if we will see any of her daughters.   At night I close my eyes and see her once again, winging her way off into an uncertain future.   And once again, Nature teaches us that there are always new things to see, out in our gardens, if only we keep our eyes open...

Janet Partlow

photos by Nancy Partlow and Glen Buschmann


  1. Terrific information & photos! Thanks for sharing this with all of us, and I wish you'd come hang out in my garden sometime and tell me what I have!

  2. On a related note, I was pleased to note on Wednesday, for the first time I could remember, a pair of our Yellow-faced Bumblebees - Bombus vosnesenskii mating, at Camp Long in West Seattle. I was pleased that the observation was made during an insect program for a group of elementary school kids that I was leading, so all of the kids could share in the fascination and lesson. After the end of the program, I saw 2 males of the same species trying to mate with a queen at the same time. I would guess that only one was successful, but for all I know both males added their sperm to the mix of fertilizers.

  3. Did you know The Coast Salish have traditionally seen a parallel between Bess and berry production? In some versions of the story, Blue-Jay opens a basket from his sister too early...bees fly from out of the basket...had he been more patient they would have changed into berries.....Salish words for bee are: sîuÛç = wasp, bee, hornet and maàpç = bumble bee .The Art pictured above is by Indigenous Artist Chris P. Joseph, of the Squamish Tribe of Coast Salish Nation, which is located in the southern region of the British Columbia, his art can be viewed and purchased at Visit my webpage for more cultural stories about bees