Janet Partlow

The Evergreen State College, Olympia WA 98505 USA.


4 April 1997

It was a gray Sunday in early spring and we had grumpily decided it was time to weed our choked-out flower beds. It had been cold and rainy much of the previous week, but that day warmed up to about 55 degrees. We wandered around the flower beds, making feeble attempts at pulling the most huge and obvious weeds, leaving piles of freshly upturned soil in their place.

It was then we noticed the big fat single bumblebee sharing the garden with us. She was interested in the newly turned soil, landing on the shallow clumps and carefully exploring them. We watched this behavior on and off all afternoon.

It was only later when I checked a resource book on insects that I realized that this was a queen looking for a place to build her nest. Typically she seeks out abandoned mouse, mole or gopher burrows. Probably the scent of the freshly turned soil got her interested in exploring our garden. Once she finds a suitable site, she will make a small set of cells, lay the first eggs and wait for the worker bees to emerge. As her hive starts to prosper, she will retire from her explorations and remain in the hive, laying more eggs which will keep the hive supplied with worker bees for the rest of the summer.

Bumblebees of the insect tribe Bombini are extremely important native pollinators of our early spring and summer crops our fruit trees in particular need them. These bees can tolerate colder temperatures than the non-native honeybees, whose genetic tolerance to cold was developed in warmer Mediterranean climates. Bumblebees also seem less prone to the diseases currently plaguing the honeybees. And bumblebees have always been here; their genetic design suits them perfectly to the pollination of our native plants. I am always delighted to welcome Bumblebees back to our gardens each year.

Last April, a friend had put up several bird boxes, but was dismayed because one in particular didnt have any avian takers. She thought bees might have moved in, but wasnt sure. We waited until night-time for the temperature to drop below 50; even bumblebees have trouble staying active then. We carefully opened the bird box and shone our flashlight in. I was amazed to see the box half full of carefully shredded dry moss. Perhaps 25 sleepy bumblebees moved slowly around the moss, trying to get away from the light. I was fascinated to get a glimpse into the nest lives of these wonderful insects. After a few minutes, we quietly closed the box and left them to their sleep.

By August, the hives are bustling and the bees take advantage of every moment of sun. This became clear to me as I visited a friend who has designed a flower garden specifically to attract butterflies and bees. Her garden in August was a cornucopia of Cosmos, Black-eyed Susans, Liatris and Bee Balm, all laying their flowers out like wares at the market. The Bumblebees were the main customers that day. We stood and counted at least six different species. One little black bumblebee with red pollen baskets on her legs seemed to specialize on the Bee Balm.

As we stood and listened to their buzzings, we felt the last of the summer sun on our face. I remember that day now like a farewell to summer; we like the bees soaking up the last bit of sun to carry us through the dark months ahead.

But soon the temperatures will rise and the queen bumblebees will awaken from their winter sleep to seek a home. And as I watch them, I will be reminded that there are sunnier days ahead.

Page author: John T. Longino longinoj@evergreen.edu

Last modified: 18 April 1997