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The Rolla Daily News - Rolla, MO
  • Gardening to Distraction: Humble bumbles

  • Ever since I hung up a Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States poster at the foot of my stairs, I have been talking to myself, trying to match bumblebee markings I see in my garden with the ones on the poster. My favorite is the “Confusing Bumble Bee,” found on honeysuckle and St. John’s Wort.
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  • Ever since I hung up a Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States poster at the foot of my stairs, I have been talking to myself, trying to match bumblebee markings I see in my garden with the ones on the poster. My favorite is the “Confusing Bumble Bee,” found on honeysuckle and St. John’s Wort.
    Bumblebees have been a fascination ever since a science teacher said they were not designed for flight. In spite of their disproportionate body shape to wing span, at least bumblebees in my hillside garden seem to do very well flitting around flowers, and me.
    Between honeybees and bumblebees — Bombus, the scientific name of bumblebees, is the more efficient pollinator of the two. They are more efficient because of their hairy bodies and what is called “buzz” pollination, which involves them shaking pollen off their fur as they move from flower to flower.
    In reading several scientific papers on the study of the “humble bees,” it was also interesting to see their worldwide distribution. They are most populous in China and in colder regions, which may explain their furry bodies.
    Bumblebees, like honeybees, are also declining. Four species - western bumblebee, rusty patched bumblebee, yellow banded bumblebee and the American bumblebee - were once very common and important crop pollinators over their ranges.
    Franklin’s bumblebee was historically found only in a small area in southern Oregon and northern California, and it may now be extinct.
    Wild bumblebees face many threats including habitat alteration, pesticide use, management practices and pathogens. There are a number of worldwide initiatives to study and track bumblebees including bumblebeewatch.org.
    Bumblebees nest in old mouse burrows, wood and compost piles, even small cavities in sidewalks and garden statuary.
    Only the queen bumblebee hibernates, waking up early spring to develop workers who collect nectar and pollen. At its peak, a bumble bee nest may contain 300-500 individuals, compared to 50,000-60,000 in a honey bee colony.
    Bumblebees only produce enough honey to feed themselves.
    Last year, I discovered bumblebees love flowering catnip. I was going to remove the flowers to keep the catnip scent strong. As I approached the catnip patch, I remember thinking I didn’t know catnip had black flowers. There were literally dozens of bumblebees, many of them the size of the tip of my little finger, hovering around blooms and collecting pollen.
    Bumblebees also play an important role in our source of food. Commercial farmers keep Common Eastern Bumblebee colonies in greenhouses to pollinate tomato and green pepper crops.
    Some also build greenhouses, leaving 1-inch openings at the bottom so bumblebees can visit plants to collect pollen and, in the process, pollinate.
    Page 2 of 2 - Bumblebees can repeatedly sting but they rarely do unless their nest is being threatened. The best prevention to being stung is to not walk barefoot in a garden, and not to swat at any bee. Fast movement is perceived as a threat.
    As a beekeeper, I have learned to completely stop when bees seem agitated. Although that may be counter-intuitive, it has proven to be a good strategy to minimize stings. Also helps to reduce my urge to panic.
    So far, I have identified Common Eastern Bumblebees and Two-Spotted Bumblebees, although it could also have been a Confusing Bumble Bee. Now look who is confused!
    Charlotte Ekker Wiggins is a certified gardener sharing gardening tips in a rapidly changing climate. Copyright 2014 used with permission by Rolla Daily News and Waynesville Daily Guide. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Contact Charlotte at chargardens@ gmail.com.

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