The Beautiful Bumblebee

Published December 12, 2013

Since the sun has come out the humble bumblebee has been inspiring me. 

As I sit on my deck enjoying a drink or enjoying the sunshine I hear the very busy bumblebee buzzing amongst the herbs.

I thought to myself “what is a bumblebee and where did he come from?”

Unsurprisingly bumblebees are not native to New Zealand and were introduced from the UK to help farmers produce better crops way back in 1885.

The most common bumblebee is the bombus terrestris. Seems fitting that a bumblebee should be known as a bombus since they look like little bombs!

The bombus terrestris has a fluffy white bottom (had never noticed that before) and has a common name of buff-tailed bumblebee and is also the largest of the species. It is the only species to have a black waist.

The first bumblebees to be seen in spring are the queens – the queen is the only bumblebee to hibernate through the winter – the rest die (sorry chaps!).

The queen is much bigger than the workers who appear in late spring. As soon as the queen has found some nectar to replenish her energy reserves, she starts looking for a suitable site to build her nest. There are about 200 workers in a mature colony of the large bumblebee Bombus terrestris. Nests deplete in late summer and are often destroyed by invading rodents, insects, mites and slaters. The foundress queen dies but new queens leave the old nest and overwinter in small cavities they excavate in the soil.

Three ‘castes’ occur within bumblebee nests, a ‘queen’ (the reproductive female), ‘workers’ (non-reproductive females) and males. All three castes are broadly similar in appearance, but males can be distinguished as they lack stings and have longer antennae than the females – so it is only females and queens who sting (how appropriate!).

Bumblebees have something called ‘pollen baskets’ on their legs. This is a large flat space or hollow on their hind legs surrounded by hairs to make the ‘basket.’ The inside of their legs have lots of hairs that make brushes or combs. After they have climbed around a flower and have lots of pollen stuck to them they run the combs over themselves to pick up the pollen. Then they mix it all together with a bit of nectar to make it sticky and pack it into the pollen basket.

Bumblebees work very hard and long hours, foraging from dawn to dusk in search of nectar and pollen no matter the weather.

Possibly the most distinctive feature of the bumblebee is its buzz, especially the very large queen’s. The buzz allows the bumblebee to ‘buzz pollinate’ the anthers of flowers. The bee rakes up a bunch of anthers, holding them against its body with its legs and buzzes them.  The amount of energy transferred from the buzzing bee causes the pollen to explode outward covering the bee in pollen.

Bumblebees can navigate their way back to the nest from a distance of 13 kilometres but generally stick to about a five kilometre radius.

Bumblebees have been commercially reared in New Zealand for about 20 years and are now being exported back to the UK where they are nearly extinct.

In commercial use 150-300 bumblebees can service 15,000 tomato plants or 40 different flowers per bee every hour over 12 hours!

My quest into finding out more about bumblebees has led me to realise I have very few pollen or nectar producing plants in my garden – I shall remedy this.  I found bumblebees on my roses, in my herb garden and on my rhododendrons.

I also found them very difficult to photograph as they move so quickly and frequently – I need a macro lens for my camera!  Another thing, the Aussies didn’t want bumblebees so you won’t find any in the great red continent.

Watch out for my new friends and take a moment to enjoy their spectacle.