Bundling Humblebees

As the sun lowered on the horizon at Kettle Moraine State Forest (Wisconsin) it cast a level light into the vegetation and exposed the normally shadowed portions. Thanks to this new look on life, I spotted an unusual “nut” dangling from the branches of a Black Walnut tree. Instead of the expected fruit, this formation was a lumpy formation of yellow and black fuzz suspended off a leaf.  Initially it appeared to be a giant bumblebee. Closer inspection, however, revealed it to be a conglomeration of bees– a bundle of bumblebees, if you please.

To put this into musical terms, this unusual clump consisted of a B major surrounded by a half dozen B minors (Bm). To put this into natural terms (which I should have done in the first place) this appeared to be a Queen Bumble and her court of drones. In bee societies drones are male bees whose sole job is to impregnate the queen and die – preferably in that order. By all appearances this was a gang of hormonally enriched drones all sleeping with the queen and all hoping for a genetic chance to contribute to the betterment of beedom. Upon further research, this interpretation turns slightly suspect.

Bumblebees (known as Humble bees in Europe) are not cast in the same mold as the more familiar Honeybees. The Honeys form complex mega societies with well-defined caste roles and brooding structure (aka combs). Colonies can consist of thousands of individuals and last over several years. Bumblebees, on the other hand, create small colonies consisting of only a few hundred individuals who join together to make a ramshackle cluster of honey pots inside an abandoned animal burrow or an old birdhouse.  Every single worker, drone, and even the aging queen dies off every fall and the colony must be re-established annually by a new queen.

It would be easy to say “humbles bumble and honeys hum” in terms of their respective seasonal progressions, but that would be unfair. Both do what they have evolved to do and obviously the native Bumblebees are into the peasant mode of insect existence. The role of the queen and drone in Bumblebee society is a departure from the honeybee pattern. In late summer, the newly made queens and the drones fly away from the colony, but the queens will only mate with drones from other colonies.

So, you (and I) say the bumblebee cluster I observed must be a mating swarm, of sorts, consisting of a native queen and a court of un-related suitors. This activity does occur in late summer, but the problem lies in the manner. It seems that bumbles don’t “swarm” but instead mate individually with individual drones. I have yet to find a record of clustering such as I record here. Instead of declaring this unique or earth-shattering, I will simply repeat my earlier phrase “I have yet to find record” and bow to ignorance. Hopefully someone who got an A in B class will C this post and place a D on my B knowledge and provide the missing record.

As a parting thought, I believe the female had settled in for the cool evening and that the drones, also seeking night shelter, simply hung on for the night. The group was inactive when discovered – another reason to believe they were settling in for the night. By dawn’s light the next day, the group was gone. I imagine a bit of arguing and jostling occurred before things were resolved and the genetic intention of the gathering was completed.

It is worth noting that once a new queen has mated, she will return to the old colony and proceed to pig out on the stored honey. She fills her so-called “honey stomach” and then hibernates through the winter as a lone fat bee in small hole somewhere. As I mentioned before, all the other bees in the old colony die of starvation while the corpulent queen snores in comfort.

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