Bumblebees are even better pollinators than honey bees. Eduardo Goody/Unsplash
By Bob Heath Volunteer pollinator specialist and professor emeritus of Kent State University
Big, black and buzzing busily about your spring flowers, these bumble bees deserve regal respect. They’re queens in search of a place to build their palace. Actually, they’ll dig their palatial nest in the ground, usually under some dried leaves from last fall. Once they begin to dig their summer nest they also begin to collect pollen, roll it into a ball and lay an egg on it, which will become her first daughters. But these daughters aren’t princesses, they’re more like vassals, female worker bees doing all of the yard work for the queen.
Once the daughters can carry nectar and pollen back to the nest (usually around mid-May), the queen will never leave the nest and will die in November. A bumble bee ground nest usually contains several hundred to a thousand worker bees.
Bumble bees are among the best pollinators around — even better than honey bees. They can pollinate many different species and genera of flowers, actively pollinating gardens and crops from April through mid-October. They work all day long, often visiting flowers after other bees have “closed shop” for the day. That’s because they can work in dim light as well as bright sunlight. They can even explore life in the woods, where most bees fear to fly.
If you like to grow tomatoes, peppers, egg plants and blueberries, you’ll love bumble bees. Those crops require “buzz pollination.” In buzz pollination the bumble bee unhooks its wings from its flight muscles, then grabs onto the flower and “shakes and shivers” the pollen loose — vibrating its muscles and making a big buzzing sound. It’s one of the things bumble bees can do that honey bees can’t. Another is their ability to work in greenhouses, undisturbed by an environment that confuses other bees.
Remember, it’s not the queen bumble bee doing all that work; it’s her many daughters working in your garden. The queen is in her nest laying eggs that become her daughters. Killing the queen at this time of the year is equivalent to killing all her offspring in one fell swoop. So don’t kill the queen! She looks big and threatening, but she won’t sting you, and she doesn’t bite. When you see her, just relax and start thinking of all those tomatoes you’ll enjoy later on after her daughters have buzzed about your garden.