MARCH
2009

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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03-26-09

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Grumpy Old Women of the Insect Type Welcome Spring

One of the indicators that spring has sprung, for keen observers of nature at least, is the sighting of the first bumble bee. Now I know that most people probably don't consider seeing the first bumble bee as a sure sign of the spring season. But I do.

A lot of people do look to the animal world for clues regarding the arrival of spring. Whether or not a portly old groundhog sees a shadow has been used as a long-range indicator for the onset of spring for generations. But most people shun long-range predictions for real-time indicators.

Some people proclaim the arrival of spring when they see flocks of geese in characteristic V formations honking their way northward. Other people believe that spring has arrived when they see a red-breasted bird -- the robin -- hopping on the lawn. Some folks tout hearing a frog croak, in this case the appropriately named spring peeper, as a sure sign that spring is upon us.

None of these creatures are dependable indicators for the arrival of spring. For instance, many Canadian geese no longer migrate southward in the winter and can be seeing flying around all winter long in many areas.

The robins that are traditional harbingers of spring spend the winter sheltered by woods or hiding in coves along creek banks. A day or two of unseasonably warm weather can send the old robin red breasts from their winter haunts to our front yards in a hop-and-listen search for earthworms.

A couple of days of open water brought on by a warm spell in late winter will prompt the little spring peepers to creep from their hibernation sites in the soil. Where upon they join voices to produce an amphibian here-comes-spring chorus.

While flocks of geese, the sight of robins on the lawn, or the sound of peepers can warm the cockles of human hearts in anticipation of spring, we might be in for a surprise. As it turns out, a cold snap or even a snowstorm often silences these feathered honkers, chirpers and web-footed peepers.

The fuzzy old, buzzy old bumble bee is a different story. Because it is a cold-blooded insect, enduring even a short spell of below-freezing temperatures after coming out of hibernation, would mean death. So jumping the gun as spring approaches is a very bad thing for bumble bees. That's why bumble bees are a bit more careful than some other animals when making a first appearance on the spring stage in temperate regions of the world.

Bumble bees live in colonies and are what are called social insects. A few species of bees and wasps are social insects. That means a colony of these insects has a queen, a number workers and, at sometime during the season, males. One type of social bee, the honey bee, exists in a permanent colony, a colony that exists all year long. This is the way all ant and termite colonies work.

Bumble bees, yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets, on the other hand, have what scientists call annual colonies. Like annual plants these insect colonies exist for only a year. Each spring a mated queen emerges from hibernation sites to start a nest. During the winter the queens of these insects hide in protected places, such as under leaf litter in the woods, and when the threat of frost is gone they wake from their long winter nap and begin seeking a place to build a nest.

For the bumble bee queen that means searching for a protected place, especially where some soft material of some sort exists with which to provision the nest. For instance, an abandoned rodent burrow with a nest of grass, a stack of hay bales or even a drawer in a garage that is stuffed with rags.

The large queens of the bumble bees can be seen searching for suitable nest sites in the spring time. They fly in and out of buildings and seem to be crawling into every nook and cranny in search of just the right place for a home. Once an appropriate spot is discovered the queen will begin to build a few egg cells where she will deposit eggs and provision the cells with pollen as food for her children. Then, like a setting hen, the queen will brood the eggs until the first workers hatch. These workers will take over the duties of the colony for the remainder of the season.

These bumble bee queens create a droning, buzzing sound as they go about their business in the spring time. It is not clear to me if the old lady bee is producing a happy or a grumpy sound, but it is a sure thing that when you hear a buzzy old bumble bee searching for a nest site that spring has sprung!

 

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Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox