Brown-Belted Bumble Bee - Bombus griseocollis
Order Hymenoptera - Ants, Bees, Wasps and Sawflies

Bees & Wasps Index | Parasitica | Aculeata | Symphyta

Live adult bumble bees photographed in the wild at DuPage County, Illinois
Brown-Belted Bumble Bee
Anyone who has wandered the lawns or forests or fields of temperate North America are familiar with these big fuzzy bees known for their "impossible" aerodynamics and obsession with flowers. Here in the American Midwest, bumble bees are often the only large insects readily apparent in the landscape; their huge body and lumbering flight seemingly unfit for their incessant pollen and nectar gathering. But what are they doing with all this gathered carbohydrate? Where do they live?

Bumble bees usually form their colonies underground. A queen that has already mated will overwinter until early spring, then find a hole (such as an abandoned mammal burrow) where she will construct her nest. A single queen gathers pollen and begins laying eggs. Smaller female worker bees develop first, and they begin foraging for nectar and more pollen. As the weather warms into early summer, new brood cells and honeypots are constructed. These new brood cells produce larger adults which in turn are put to work gathering nectar for the colony. Mature colonies can contain scores of active workers, and may include an expatriate drone cloud nearby, whereby the colony projects its power and stockpiles genetic material for impregnating emerging virgin queens.

The queen controls the gender of her offspring and as soon as the colony is stable, with enough workers and pollen and honey stores to feed the brood, she begins minting new queens and their male counterparts, drones. Drones do not have stingers, and their only purpose is to mate; much like teenaged male humans, they perform no useful work, but go off with their buddies to hang around and assault females and innocent passersby. 

The bees pictured here are an agglomeration of drones gathered on a prominent hilltop, engaged in agressively patrolling a territory. They stand watch from a perch nearby, then fly out to harass each other and any hapless flying insects that blunder within range. Each of the dozen or so individuals had several different perches to which they returned again and again. Every so often, they would all gather in a "cloud" - rapidly flying in both horizontal and vertical circles, round and round one another, furiously buzzing and generally raising hell. Wow! You sure don't want to be around one of these three-dimensional scrums if you're afraid of insects.

One week later, the dozen or so bees in the cloud were down to just 2 or 3. I was surprised male bees lasted this long in the open - I thought they just mated and died. August 23 - fully four weeks later, there were still male bumble bees here, pursuing the same activities.

Brown-Belted Bumble Bee
Bumble Bees are important pollinators of flowering plants. Many plants have evolved over the millennia to take advantage of various insects' ability to spread their pollen from plant to plant. Pollination by bees is known as melittophily.

In this era of declining domestic honey bee numbers due to colony collapse disorder (CCD) and other parasites and pathogens, colonies of wild BBs take on additional importance. Bees are a crucial part of wildlife communities - known as ecosystems - because they pollinate plants in their search for their food, nectar and pollen. Worldwide, up to 40 per cent of the world's food production is pollinated by wild bees. Bumble bees are increasingly used in hothouse tomato production; the intense vibration produced by the flight muscles is known to efficiently dislodge the tomato flower's pollen, resulting in greater fruit production.

Nests are abandoned at the close of autumn, and all the bees, save the new queens, die solitary deaths.  That's part of why BBs have successfully resisted all attempts at domestication; man has not yet fashioned an artificial hive amenable to their tender sensibilities. I expect today's decline of the honey bee population is good for the bumble bees since they have less competition for foodstuffs. I sincerely hope their numbers will increase accordingly, lest insect-pollinated flowering plants undergo catastrophic reproduction problems. Perhaps someone will build a better apiarian mousetrap and succeed in coaxing them into an eternity of slavery to the human race?

Brown-Belted Bumble Bee
All Hymenoptera have two pairs of wings; fore and hindwings can be hooked together

Insect Mimics of Bumble Bees
Would-be predators avoid insects sporting the bumble bee's yellow-and-black aposematic coloring. The meme is so effective, there is a whole panoply of insects (chiefly flies) which model their appearance and behavior in an effort to ward off attack. The mimickers gain the benefit of a stinger and venom delivery system without the high energy cost of constructing such apparatus.

A bumble bee stinger does not have barbs like the honey bee's. Bumble bee stingers can be withdrawn from the victim and reused many times. I've been stung by honey bees quite a few times, but never by a bumble bee. They can be very intimidating, being so large and making such a loud buzz. Good thing they are usually ignoring us and present very little danger to humans or their pets. When aroused, a colony will send many bees out to buzz any would-be predators, but even then they seem reluctant to sting.

It's the females that do all the work
I once accidentally uncovered and damaged a bumble bee colony constructed underground right next to the concrete foundation of my house. Those bees boiled out and flew in an energetic cloud all around me! And as foragers returned from the field to the clarion call of alarm pheromones, they added to the swarm of bees zooming in all directions. At the height of the melee, there were 50 or more of them flying about. It was rather terrifying - except they never even touched me.  Of course I ran like hell, but they had ample opportunity to get me if they had wanted - and trust me, I know what it's like to be wanted in such wise - a similar encounter with yellowjackets left me stung multiple times.

It was two days before the commotion dissipated and the bees calmed down, but nobody got hurt. I waited till winter to finish the excavation: the nest cavity was nearly 8 feet long underground and contained scores of honeypots.  My hat's off to a very clever and industrious insect indeed.

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Order Hymenoptera: Bees, Wasps, & Ants
Hymenoptera (Latin for membrane wing) is a vast assemblage of insects second only to Coleoptera (beetles) in the number of described species. Hymenoptera number some 115,000 species - of which 18,000 live in North America. Hymenopterans inhabit a wide variety of habitats, and show an incredible diversity in size, behavior, structure and color.
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