Friday, February 20, 2015

Bed and Breakfast for Bumble Bees

©Words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow
Phrases in red text are links to videos.
I used to turn my nose up at crocuses.  I thought they were just another species of over-bred nursery flower that sits there doing nothing. Turns out I was wrong.  Five years ago Janet wrote a blog about her experience with a queen bumble bee using a crocus blossom in her yard as an overnight hotel:
I was totally charmed by this story and wanted to have the same experience for myself. To this end, I bought and planted some crocus corms in a sunny location in my garden.  For the past several winters I’ve eagerly awaited the emergence of the flowers and for a queen bumble bee to choose one of them as a sleeping bag.  This week it finally happened.  It was the coolest thing!

Around four o’clock one afternoon, I went outside to check the crocus patch and was excited to see a queen Bombus vosnesenskii bumble bee lying inert inside the slowly-closing petals of a striped purple crocus blossom.

The day had been unseasonably warm, but the queen had sensed the approaching  darkness of a cold winter night, and had chosen a clever hiding place to protect herself from the elements and predators. She wasn’t asleep, but had entered into a semi-torpid state to conserve energy.  She had picked this particular blossom as a bed and breakfast, knowing that crocus flowers shut up at night and are a rich source of nectar and pollen.

The queen lay there until morning, when dappled sunlight gently shone upon the dew-covered flower, gradually warming its petals and the insect swaddled within.   

It took a few hours for the petals to sufficiently open to reveal the still-torpid queen, her slightly-twitching legs indicating that life was returning to her body.  

During the night, she had changed position inside the blossom, and now her legs were wrapped around the flower’s stamen.   Nourishing orange pollen grains coated the hairs of her body. 

Sunlight had not yet penetrated deeply inside the flower’s cup, so eventually the groggy bee laboriously dragged herself to the edge of a petal where she lay soaking up the life-giving solar warmth. 

It wasn’t until nearly noon that the bee finally started to move in earnest, crawling to the next flower to eagerly drink nectar and rub stamen pollen onto her belly hairs.

Janet (who was visiting me that day) and I speculated on what the belly pollen behavior was all about.  I thought the queen might be gathering food to eat later, to help her rebuild the stores of body fat she had depleted during a long underground hibernation. But Janet suggested a different theory, that since pollen is full of antimicrobial ingredients, perhaps the bee was using it as a type of medicine protectant for her body, especially since she had so recently emerged from the soil.  Or, maybe the queen had already found a place to build her nest and was gathering pollen to lay her first brood of eggs upon.

It was about this time that I caught sight of another insect crawling out of a nearby crocus, and was amazed to realize that a second queen bumble bee, this one a red, yellow and black Bombus melanopygus, had also used one of my crocus flowers as a B & B.

The previous evening, I had placed a 4-inch potted heath plant near the crocuses, knowing that with its masses of tiny nectar-filled flowers, heath is an important food source for early-season bumble bees.

The melanopygus queen, her body caked with yellow crocus pollen, flew straight to the heath and started drinking. 

Success!  This gardening for wildlife stuff is really great.

Pollinator gardening provides many such experiences of discovery.  It is also a way to welcome back into our lives the myriad wonderful creatures who previously inhabited  the spaces we now occupy on earth.

I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
Additional video:

After fully warming up, the Bombus vosnesenskii queen nectars on crocus blossoms:
Other resources:
About bee torpor:

Long before crocuses and heath became popular landscape plants in human settlements, bumble bee species had evolved over millennia to survive in native plant ecosystems. This article from England gives an idea of how queen bumble bees might survive in those situations: 

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