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.
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?
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...
photos by Nancy Partlow and Glen Buschmann