Bumblebees are master pollinators

I always find it exciting to spot the first bumblebee of the season in my garden.

You can hear her coming as she buzzes along looking for flowers for her first spring meal or maybe she’s looking for a good nesting site. This occurs sometime in April, depending on the weather.

The first bumbles of the year are queen bumblebees, having spent the winter some place cozy they are now looking for a good nesting site with food nearby.

There are around 250 species of bumblebees worldwide, most in temperate regions.

There are 49 species of bumblebees in the U.S. with 21 of those species in the Eastern U.S and all belong to the genus Bombus.

Bumble bees are excellent pollinators partly because of their size and their hairy appearance. Those bristly hairs are great for carrying pollen around from plant to plant.

They are also able to buzz pollinate which honeybees cannot do.

During buzz pollination the bees vibrate their bodies by contracting their flight muscles. This helps to shake pollen loose from certain types of unique anthers.

Blueberries and tomatoes both have flowers that need to be buzz pollinated. Carpenter bees and some of our other native bees can also buzz pollinate.

Another reason bumblebees are great pollinators is that they will go out in cool, cloudy, even rainy weather that other bees avoid.

Bumblebees can work in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which honeybees generally will not do. They forage for both pollen and nectar.

Bumblebees are big compared to other bees. Their size allows them to forage farther from the nest and bring home more pollen, which means they are visiting more flowers each trip.

Bumblebees are generalist feeders and have been recorded visiting hundreds of species of native plants. In some cases, they are the sole pollinators for certain native plants.

They are also important pollinators for many of our food crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, raspberries, cucumbers, melons, strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, sunflowers, and others.

Bumblebees are social bees meaning that they live in colonies. They differ from honeybees in that bumblebee colonies are annual.

Colonies are also smaller ranging from 50 to 500 bumble bees.

In the spring you may see very large bumblebees flying close to the ground. This is the queen bumble bee that survived the winter and is looking for a spot to start this year’s nest.

Bumblebees prefer abandoned rodent nests or underground burrows to nest in, but they will also use old bird nests, grass tussocks, hollow logs, compost piles, clumps of moss or nest under rocks.

Once the queen bumblebee finds a suitable nest location, she will then start foraging for pollen so that she can lay eggs to create her first group of worker bees. The queen makes pollen balls to lay her eggs on.

Once the eggs have hatched, the larvae will feed on the pollen. The queen will also collect pollen and nectar to feed the larvae.

It can take four to five weeks going from egg to adult. These new bumblebees are the workers, and they will take over the job of collecting pollen and nectar as the queen lays more eggs to grow the colony.

Workers are smaller than queens. Depending on their job they only live for a month or two.

Later in the summer, males and new queens will be produced by the colony. These bees then leave the nest to mate. Newly mated queens need plenty of fall flowers to feed on so that they have plenty of fat reserves to get through the winter. The new queens will spend the winter in a safe spot underground or maybe in rotting wood, brush piles, wood piles, or rock walls.

The rest of the colony will die as autumn ends.

If you are lucky enough to find a bumblebee nest in your yard, try not to disturb it. It will only be there this year.

While bumblebees do guard their nest, they are not as aggressive as yellow jackets or other hornets. However, disturbing a colony will rile the residents and cause them to behave defensively.

Worker bumblebees can sting repeatedly without dying. Male bumblebees cannot sting.

They generally do not reuse nests as the new queens don’t over winter in them. Bumblebees do not damage wood or chew holes in your home — that would be an indication of carpenter bees.

Bumble bee numbers are declining.

Consider planting a perennial garden for bumblebees or adding flowers that are white, blue, purple or yellow, the colors they prefer. Single-flowered varieties are best for bees as pollen and nectar is easier to reach.

Since bumblebees are active starting in spring through the fall, having blooms during this time will help attract them to your yard. Shrubs such as blueberries, dogwood, rhododendron, viburnum, willow, buttonbush, and elderberry are all good bumble bee plants.

Goldenrod, asters and sunflowers are excellent food sources in the fall.

To continue to thrive and provide valuable pollination services, bumblebees need a diversity of flowers to provide pollen and nectar, nesting sites and places for the queens to over winter. Avoid raking or mowing in the early spring to protect the hibernating queens.

Reduced pesticide use can also help their numbers rebound. Every garden has the potential to be a safe haven for bumblebees.

Have a gardening question? The Master Gardener office is open.

Please wear a mask when visiting the Cornell Cooperative Extension office and check in at the reception window.

Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. until noon. You can stop in at the CCE office at 420 E. Main St. in Batavia, call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail it at: geneseemg@hotmail.com.

Join us on Thursday for Garden Talk “Raised Beds Basics” at noon on Zoom.

Raised bed gardens are a great alternative to traditional in-the-ground gardens. They are especially convenient for new gardeners or for small yards.

Learn the advantages and disadvantages of gardening in raised beds.

Master Gardener Brandie W. will cover the basics of how to build a raised bed, site selection, how to make a soil mix, and creative planting ideas. The event is free.

Master Gardener Gala

Our Master Gardener Spring Gala is returning from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on May 15.

There will be some changes due to COVID-19 restrictions. Please wear a mask, social distance and we will be collecting contact information.

The plant sale will be outside, and we will offer a variety of perennials, many straight from the gardens of Master Gardeners. Houseplants and gently used garden books will also be for sale.

Our basket auction will be held inside so you may have to wait your turn to check it out. We will not be able to accommodate people inside during the drawing, which will be at 12:30 p.m.

Winners will be called.

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