Today was a gorgeous post-summer solstice June evening with warm sun and a beautiful breeze. I was walking around my honeybee hives when I heard a deeper, louder buzz in the brush toward the back of the hives. In the grass was a queen Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens). She was flying between patches of dirt and not visiting any flowers for pollen and nectar, but crawling through cut grass, dirt mounds, and small plants. I called my eight-year-old son over to come watch and we followed this bumblebee as she made short buzzing flights and inspected the ground at each new spot. I’m pretty sure that she was looking for a home to start her colony in. This particular species (Bombus impatiens) likes to nest underground, so she was probably looking for an empty mouse hole to live in.
Bumblebee queens hibernate during the winter and emerge in the spring and early summer. Newly emerged queens establish a site for a new colony and begin to forage for pollen and nectar from flowers. Pollen is their main protein source and nectar is how they get most of their carbohydrates. After establishing a nest site, bumblebee queens will lay eggs in a small ball of pollen (she mated in the previous fall). These eggs will hatch into larvae which grow, spin a cocoon, and metamorphose into bumblebee workers. As they mature, the female workers will take over the foraging duties and the queen stays in the nest to lay eggs. Later in the summer drones (males) and new queens are produced and these leave the colony to mate. After mating, the new queens bury themselves in soil or other plant material and hibernate through the winter. The old queen and colony workers eventually die as fall turns to winter and there are few flowering plants to forage on. In the following spring, mated queens emerge from hibernation to form new colonies and the cycle begins anew.
My son and I watched this queen bee look for a new home for about 20 minutes until she buzzed off quickly in a direction that we could not see or follow. At that point it was dusk, so, I’m not sure that she successfully found permanent lodgings today. Perhaps we will be able to find a bumblebee colony in our fields this summer and observe it for some time.
Colla, S.R., L. Richardson, and P. Williams. (2011). Bumblebees of the Eastern United States. FS-972. USDA Forest Service and the Pollinator Partnership.
Goulson, D. (2010). Bumblebees, behaviour, ecology, and conservation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.