Hard beginnings

By Athayde Tonhasca

If you have been out for a walk, you may have seen the odd bumble bee flying about. These are recently emerged queens, who will soon build nests in which to lay their eggs and kick start a new colony. You may also have noticed that the world does not seem quite ready for bumble bees: it is still cold, and there aren’t many flowers around.

Those queens have been underground since last summer, and have loss weight during hibernation. About 1 in 5 did not make it through the winter. Now a surviving queen has to feed on plenty of nectar and pollen, which is necessary for the development of her ovaries. She will be alone for several weeks before her first brood arrives, therefore if she can’t find enough flowers to keep her going through nest construction, egg production and brood care, she will die or not produce offspring.

Not an easy life for this buff-tailed bumble bee queen (Bombus terrestris) © Bj.schoenmakers, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

So March and April are a critical period for bumble bee survival. A queen can’t rely on most crops for food, as they will flower weeks from now. She will find nectar and pollen in early spring plants such as comfrey, heather, crocus, primrose, rhododendron, cornflower, vetches, white deadnettle, willows, hawthorn and blackthorn. You can help by planting early blooming flowers in your garden, backyard, and outside pots. 

Goat willow (Salix caprea) and snowdrop (Galanthus spp.), excellent early sources of pollen and nectar, respectively © Rosser1954 (L) and Redsimon (R), Wikipedia Creative Commons

You may correctly assume that it’s hard enough for a queen bumble bee even if she finds enough food, so it may not be a good idea to be flying around so early in the season. But researchers tracked queen bumble bees with harmonic radar (a useful tool for tracing the path of flying insects) and found out they don’t do much flying at all. Recently emerged queens spend most of their time resting on the ground, only taking short flights now and then. In a couple of weeks they will take off to found new colonies, sometimes several kilometres away. Of course we are more likely to notice the bees that are flying than those that are on the ground, which give the impression that they are all on the wing. We don’t know the reasons for queens staying put after hibernation, but it certainly helps them save energy for the arduous tasks ahead.