The Native Bumble
by Summer Sugg
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s—it’s…a bumblebee? This seems to be more than fitting, seeing as this pollinator’s genus name, Bombus, literally means “booming”, or “buzzing” in Latin. Anyone who’s had a garden in Colorado, or hiked in its wildflower filled landscapes can testify to the astounding amount of noise a bumblebee can make while zooming past your head. It definitely caught me off guard when I got the amazing opportunity to work with the bumblebees in the field with two biology professors at CU (Diana Oliveras and Carol Kearns) during the summer months as research.
I’m sure many of you know what a bumblebee looks like, but what I never knew before my research experience was that there are more colors than just black and yellow to a particular species of bumblebee. The abdominal segments (6 on a female, 7 on male) are where the color is located and can contain orange, white, rufous red, and even brown pile (fur) with the yellow and black depending on the species.
Female bumblebees are very interesting, especially the long life of the queen (one year or longer) who first mates, then overwinter to emerge in the spring with a mission to gather and find a good place for a hive to lay her eggs. The workers are also female, have stingers that can sting something as many times as it wants without dying, and are much smaller than the queen (except for when the new queen is chosen and leaves the hive with the males). Male bumblebees are also interesting, and some people who are good at identifying the males can scoop them up with their bare hands to examine them. The males have no stingers or corbiculae (female’s shiny area of the back legs’ femur surrounded by stiff hairs to carry pollen) and sometimes loiter on flowers or branches with their large humorous bug eyes.
Female (left) vs. Male (right)—different species, but you can see the characteristics. (http://bugguide.net)
Another interesting fact is how bumblebees are native to North America with 23 species found in Colorado alone, while honeybees are of European origin and are only a single species. The experience of working with them and this new knowledge also gave me more appreciation towards our native pollinators, especially bumblebees who are the primary players in helping to pollinate some of Colorado’s (and other state’s) native wildflowers, such as the shooting star anthers (as pictured below). This is due to their large size, enabling them to literally buzz out the pollen, which other non-native pollinators cannot do.
Book: “The Natural History of Bumblebees—A sourcebook for Investigations” by Carol A. Kearns and James D. Thompson