Flight of the bumble bee

A male bumble bee in 2015 on a Purple Salvia plant. ©Erik Brown

I just finished a wonderful book about on bumble bees. Given the flowers and the bees are both holding out for some warmer weather, I thought a post might be in order. As described in my post Endless bees most beautiful and most wonderful, bumblebees are classified in the same Family as honey bees, the Family Apidea. They have their own Genus, the Genus Bombus, distinct from the Genus Apis where the honey bee is found. The word Bombus comes from the Greek bombos for “a buzzing sound” which is certainly characteristic of these bees.

There is some confusion between using “bumblebee” (one word) verses “bumble bee” (two words). Generally two words are used by entomologists if the insect matches the name (link with more details). So we write “honey bee” and “house fly” since one is a bee that produces honey and the other an annoying fly that visits houses; and write “butterfly” and “ladybug” as one-word names since the former is not a fly and the later not a bug (it is a beetle). Bumble comes from the word for buzz or hum, so bumble bees do indeed bumble and are, in fact, bees. So in North America researchers tend to write this as two words. Entomologists in Europe do not abide by the rules of the Entomological Society of America, and tend to prefer the concatenated form bumblebee. So the spelling varies and you will see it both ways. Since I live in North America, I will use the two-word form.

Bumble bees are social insects that form colonies. The workers die off in late fall after raising new queens. The young queens mate and then hibernate over the winter, emerging in early spring to gather nectar and pollen and form a new colony. Later in the year only the smaller worker bees leave the nest to forage, so queens are normally seen in early spring or late fall. There are 250 or so species of bumble bee throughout the world, with around 50 of them in North America.

A Sting in the Tale

This delightful book by researcher Dave Goulson shares the author’s fascination and studies into bumble bees (he uses “bumblebees” of course). Goulson is based in the United Kingdom, as is the book, though he also discusses bumble bees in New Zealand, Australia, and France. Different aspects of bumble bee behavior are covered one by one, from their warm-blooded nature to their sense of smell to the nest-stealing cuckoo bumble bees. He repeatedly emphasizes the decline of habitat and disappearance of bees over recent decades. It is an easy read and full of interesting stories and facts.

The book also describes how Goulson became tired of only researching bumble bee decline and wanted to do something about it. He bought a farm in France where he runs long-term experiments and is restoring bee-friendly habitat, and found the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006 which has had some success raising awareness and creating habitat for bumble and other bees. In particular, the Trust successfully re-introduced the short-haired bumble bee into the U.K. in 2011.

Goulson’s French farm is the subject of Goulson’s more recent book A Buzz in the Meadow. I will have to read this one as well sometime.

Bumble Bee Watch

This non-profit organization is a collaborative effort to conserve North America’s bumble bees. Check out the Bumble Bee Watch About page for a list of partners and activities. A key component of the work is a mobile application where the public can record bumble bee sightings. I just discovered this over the winter and look forward to using it in the coming weeks.

The apps allows you to submit a sighting of a bumble bee along with location and photos. A photo is required so scientists can verify the species in each sighting. As a result, the information collected is accurate. The web maintains a map of recent sightings and information on each species found in North America. The app has a confusing interface, though I imagine I will get used to it.

Search for “bumble bee watch” in the App Store for iOS or Play Store for Android to become a “citizen scientist” and record the bumble bees in your area.

Bumble Bee Food

While honey bees stick with a single flowering plant while foraging, bumble bees are less picky and happily move between plant varieties. In the spring, bumble bees in our yard enjoy the holly bushes and flowering fruit trees; later in the year they are prolific on the Lamb’s Ear, Oregano, and Purple Sage.

I look forward to seeing bumble bees flying about in the coming weeks.

Lambs Ear

A two-spotted bumble bee foraging on Lamb’s Ear in June 2015.

Flight of the Bumblebee

This orchestral interlude is more famous than the associated opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov around 1900, the piece features fast-paced scales that, if you close your eyes, might cause you to think about bumble bees in flight. The Wikipedia page on the piece includes a recording by the U.S. Army Band.

The actual flight of a bumble bee is quite complex, as the bee’s four wings generate a mini-vortex that alters the air pressure around their body to provide lift. There is an old joke that the laws of aerodynamics indicate that bumble bees should not be able to fly. For a history and explanation of the topic, visit the Today I Found Out discussion on bumble bee flight.

When I finished the Sting in the Tale book and thought about a post on bumble bees, this song immediately came to mind.

May you prosper and find honey.

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