Bumblebee workers and a special queen

On June 11th, I first spotted a worker bumblebee in our yard. Worker bumblebees been slow to increase in numbers. Even though it’s now two weeks later, I still only see 2 or 3 workers at a time. My husband reminded me that I worry about the lack of bumblebees every year.

Queen bumblebees emerge first early in spring from their underground overwintering spots to fatten up and start nests. When the queens have gathered enough pollen and nectar, they lay eggs. While the larvae develop, the queens will still forage as needed. Once the first brood emerges, new workers assume the foraging duties. The queen will then only leave the nest if she needs to help collect pollen and nectar. Once there are enough workers to forage, the queen will remain in the nest for the rest of the summer/the rest of her life. For more about bumblebees’ lifecycle, see my page Helping Bumblebees.

I am still seeing queen bumblebees alongside workers. I am also still seeing queen bumblebees looking for nest sites. You can tell whether a bumblebee is a queen or a worker by its size; queen bumblebees are significantly larger. The size of workers varies depending on the quality and amount of food they had, and the temperature, during development.

This page from the PDF Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States, shows the size difference between queen and worker Common Eastern bumblebees.

So far, worker bumblebees have primarily been foraging on virginia waterleaf, pagoda dogwood, penstemons (beardtongue), figwort, as well as catmint and ‘May Night’ salvia.

Common Eastern bumblebee at a Virginia waterleaf flower. (June 13, 2019)
Bumblebee worker landing on Pagoda dogwood flowers. (June 17, 2019)
Worker bumblebee at a figwort flower. Last year, wasps were the only visitors to the figwort patch. I planted it because I read that hummingbirds like the little nectar bucket flowers. (June 24, 2019)

Special queen bumblebee

The queens and workers I have seen in the garden have all been Common Eastern bumblebees. That is, until June 16th when I saw a Northern Amber bumblebee queen visiting hairy beardtongue flowers. Isn’t she pretty?

A big Northern Amber bumblebee queen. (Juen 16, 2019)

Each morning, she visits the hairy beardtongue flowers. When she leaves, she goes up into the cedar hedge, for shelter I assume. I have never noticed a bumblebee do this before. She doesn’t venture anywhere else in the yard.

I hope she continues to visit now that the male European wool carder bees are out. They are know as ‘bully bees’ at our house because they are territorial, and will hit and chase other bees away from the flower patch they’re guarding. I even saw two males rolling around on the ground fighting. No sign of the smaller females yet.

European Wool Carder bee, aka the ‘bully bee’, taking a snack break. He hovers around the Penstemon plants in his territory to ensure that females will have a good food supply to provision their nests. He will jab other bees with his armoured behind and chase them away. (June 24, 2019)

Northern Amber bumblebees like to forage on vetches, clovers, prunella (self-heal), eupatorium (Joe Pye, boneset), comfrey, and asters. Last year, I planted Canada milk vetch and several other leguminous plants, Joe Pye weed, boneset, asters, and self-heal grows in our lawn. This year, I am also trying annual borage, which is related to the aggressive, perennial comfrey. I hope she likes our food options and finds a nest site in or nearby our yard.

The Northern Amber bumblebee is often confused with the Golden Northern bumblebee. Northern Ambers are distinguished by their yellow facial hair that can be seen in this blurry fly-by photo. For more information, see the Discovery Life page for Bombus borealis.

In this blurry photo, you can see the yellow ‘mustache’, which distinguishes the Northern Amber bumblebee from the Golden Northern bumblebee. (June 16, 2019)

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