The Wild Gardener

There’s a great deal of talk these days about the honeybee and the various threats to its existence (and they are legion). But before the colonists ever brought the honeybee to America (sometime back in the late 1400s), plenty of other pollinators were already here doing their bit with native plants — all sorts of native bees, wasps, beetles, ants, bats, birds and even a few mammals. High on the list, however, was the bumblebee.

The bumblebee story begins in the spring, with a queen who mated the previous autumn but has not yet laid any eggs. When the coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) blooms along the back roads and in backwoods, and the crocus and snowdrops start to flower in the garden, the first queen bumblebees leave their winter quarters.

Weak and lethargic after six months’ hibernation, a bee’s first duty is finding food. You sometimes see a queen basking in the spring sunshine atop a lichened fieldstone, barely moving but obviously alive to the sun’s heat. She’s storing energy for the coming day, as if quite unaware of her grave responsibility for the future of her race. At night, and when the weather turns cold, queens take shelter under leaves or in depressions in the soil, becoming quite torpid but awakening when the weather warms.

This R&R period continues for several weeks. As the queen builds up her strength, the sun warms the earth, and the burgeoning spring produces more flowers for her food.

All bumblebees make their homes in the abandoned nests of field mice, voles and shrews — accumulations of moss, leaves, grass and other materials collected by the former tenants. The mouse or vole family has departed in search of greener pastures — a sign that the great American wanderlust extends to even the smallest members of the animal kingdom — but they’ve left just enough creature comforts for the newly arriving bumblebee.

Once she’s settled in, the queen begins laying eggs. Then she builds a wax honeypot (three-quarters of an inch high and a half-inch in diameter) just inside the entrance of the nest to store some of the nectar collected in the field. This provides food on those blustery or rainy mountain days when she can’t leave home.

When the eggs hatch, the queen must feed not only herself but her brood, which she does with a mixture of honey and pollen.

Soon the young bees grow and become workers who, in turn, help the queen look after the welfare of the colony. Her highness can then turn her attention to laying still more eggs. Meanwhile, outside in the garden, the flowers bloom and bloom, as bumblebee after bumblebee drones on in the never-ending search for nectar. So the cycle of life continues, and the colony grows.

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