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Critter Column: Two Bees

by Jack Perkins

In early spring the predominant bee in my garden is the bumble bee queen, newly emerged from her winter sleep. Mostly black with a fuzzy abdomen and two yellow circles, she is pretty to watch.  Starting a new nest (a hole in the ground or under a flat board or stone) and gathering pollen is her main objective.

Her rear legs are heavy with amber globs of pollen which she takes to her nest to add to a bigger glob in which the first eggs she lays are worker eggs. The worker larvae gorge themselves on the pollen and can’t quite eat their way out because the queen keeps adding more pollen to the glob.  Eventually workers emerge from their sticky nursery and they take over all tasks except egg lying. By late summer the queen is laying queen eggs and male eggs.  When they emerge, the new queens mate and fly off to find a safe place to hibernate through the winter. When spring returns they start the process all over again.

Only fertilized females survive through winter.

Bumble bees can sting but for the most part they ignore everything except their task at hand. To sit quiet and watch them go about their business is soothing and you can get quite close without disturbing them.  However if you mess with their nest, they’ll get you and can sting you more than once (whereas the honey bee stings once and dies).  Bumble bee nests can contain 20-100 bees. By summer my garden is really buzzing.

Carpenter bees are mostly black (males have some yellow behind their heads) and have shiny abdomens. They are scarier than bumble bees because they stand their ground. They’ll buzz you at eye level, hover and dart at you to intimidate and steer you away from their nest. The male lacks the capacity to sting but the female is fully equipped (but rarely attacks). Just the same, a large buzzing insect in front of my face will win every time.

The female carpenter bee (not called “Queen”) bores deep tunnels into soft wood to lay her eggs (they are considered pests). Their tunnel entrance holes are perfectly round and about the diameter of your finger. Their nests contain fewer numbers than bumble bees.  They bore into dead wood on trees, fence posts, decks and any unpainted soft wood will do.
Male and female carpenter bees get through winter by hunkering down in their wood tunnels and living on pollen they’ve stored.

Bumble bees and carpenter bees play an important role in the pollination of wild flowers and agricultural crops. They are interesting to watch and I welcome them in my back yard. I’ve never been stung, though they are often in very close proximity as I toil in my yard.

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