Busy bumble bees put on a show in the garden

    Despite weeds sprouting up everywhere, this is our favorite time of year to just sit in our garden and watch the wildlife on display. My favorite sight is a bumble bee traveling from flower to flower, collecting pollen in the baskets on her back legs, ignoring all the bustle, even when the hummingbirds try to hog the flowers.
    With their fuzzy yellow and black bodies, bumble bees are probably the most easily recognized bees by everyone from small children to old gardeners. There are more than 250 species of bumble bee worldwide, 20 of them native in Wisconsin. Several of those, however, are now rare and confined to small sanctuary areas since habitat loss, weather change and disease are causing their populations to decline.
    Bumbles don’t store food as the honey bees do since the individual colonies don’t survive the winter cold. Instead, bumble bees produce a reproductive generation in late summer that will establish new colonies in the spring. Young queen bees will soon leave their underground nests, mate and in late autumn find a spot underground to spend the winter, hibernating alone.
    The following spring the queen will emerge and find an underground space to build her colony, usually in an unused rabbit warren or chipmunk nest. That may explain why we have so many bumble bees in the garden — there are chipmunk tunnels everywhere in the neighborhood.
    The new queen will lay a first generation of worker eggs, then scour the garden to feed her brood. Once the fledgling colony has enough workers to go out and gather food, the queen will remain underground, laying more eggs. In late summer, the cycle repeats with new queens going off to mate and find a place to overwinter.
    Right now our garden is full of bumble bees, and after downloading an ID chart, I went out to look at a few. It’s a good thing I never wanted to be an entomologist — bee ID isn’t as easy as I’d hoped. Bumble bee wings fold right over their back when they are foraging, and that’s where all the distinguishing marks are, so I only had a clear flash of the area when each bumble landed and took off.
    I think I spotted lots of common bumble bees, a couple of two-spotted and one that was belted. I’m pretty sure I spotted a new queen, too, because one bumble dwarfed every other in sight. She may have been a black and gold.
    True to form, the first bumbles I spotted were on the yellow dahlias. Yellow is a favorite color of bees. But most of them were on a stand of Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) that has just begun to flower. Each large flower head had at least one bumble bee, as well as a few smaller pollinators working away. That makes sense — a native plant should be a favorite of a native pollinator.
    The bumble bees didn’t seem to mind all the attention. They kept working away, except for those taking siestas in the sesame flowers. I guess they feel the same way I do on hot, late summer days when a nap in the garden sounds perfect. I checked later and, just like me, they headed home after their respite in the shade.



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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