Bumblebees: The Fascinating Lives of Common Pollinators

All season long, as long as there are flowers blooming, I can watch bumblebees on any nature walk in Eliza Howell Park. They take both nectar and pollen from a wide variety of flowers.

This week many of them are visiting goldenrods, which are beginning to produce abundant blooms..

I am also seeing them on Pilewort, a flower that hardly opens.

My 2022 bumblebee photos show them pollinating a wide variety of flowers — Lupine, Common Mullein, Wild Bergamot, Chicory,

another type of Goldenrod, Purple Coneflower, Culver’s Root, and Swamp Milkweed.

There are perhaps 19 species of native bumblebees in Michigan, though not all in this part of the state. They are almost all easily recognized as bumblebees, though it it is not easy to distinguish one species from another. And it is not necessary to do so, since they all live similar lives.

Bumblebees are social or colony insects, living in large nests (perhaps up to 400 individual bees) with a queen.

Each spring new queens (mated the sunmet/fall before and the only bumblebees that survive the winter) start new colonies. The first young are female workers. who take over meeting the needs of the next young as the queen continues to lay eggs.

For most of the season, there are only females. Only females carry pollen back to the nest, using the pollen baskets on the sides of their back legs (often looking orange or yellow when filled). Males have no such baskets

Only females are capable of stinging, just as only females can collect pollen

In fact, there are no males around at all till late Summer, when the queen produces males and fertile females, in preparation for the next year.

The males leave the nest, looking for fertile females from another colony to mate with. They nectar for food for themselves, but do not collect pollen for the nest. and probably do not return to the nest at all.

Recently I came across a pair of bumblebees mating (on Wingstem flowers). This was a rare opportunity to observe a male bumblebee, which can be seen to be considerably smaller than the female-to-be-queen.

At the end of the season, the old queen dies, the female workers die, the males die. Only the fertilized future queens seek locations to hibernate


Everyone on group nature walks seems to recognize bumblebees. But most, I suspect, do not know that they are great pollinators or know much about their lives as social insects.

Not every species widely recognized is widely understood.

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