The Buzz of the Bumbly Bee

Yesterday's National Geographic article on the bumblebee extinctions also mentions that bumblebees' high-frequency buzzing is just right for opening a flower's pollen-holding pores. A lot of flowers depend on this large, bumbly bee, unlike honeybees, they are able to forage under cold, rainy and cloudy conditions In the wild, birds and bears depend on bumblebees for berries and fruits.

Both flowering plants and bumblebee ancestors first appear in the Early Cretaceous, about 130 million years ago, scientists point to the link between flowers and insect pollinators as an excellent example of co-evolution. Many of the different types of insects that carry pollen from one flower to another vary in their size, shape, mouthpart structure, colour vision, sense of smell, taste, ability to grip the flower, and a host of other traits. As flowers evolved to become dependent on pollinators for reproduction, so they also started to acquire a whole range of flower forms that were attractive to subsets of all of these different animals.

Bumblebees create their uniquely charming buzz by vibrating its flight muscles, and this can be done while the muscles are decoupled from the wings, especially important in bumblebees, as they must warm up their bodies considerably to get airborne at low temperatures. A bumblebee lands on an anther and vibrates its thoracic muscles in the frequency needed to free the pollen. The wrong vibration fails to produce pollen or produces fairly little. Honeybees do not seem to vibrate very well, bumblebees have better buzz. About 8 percent of the world's flowers, including tomatoes, potatoes, blueberries, and cranberries, require a bumblebee's buzz to serenade the pollen out.

Up here at the hideout i see the first bumbly bees each spring hangin out around the chives. In our long cold spring and early summer the native bees are the only ones flying. Bumblebees seem unaffected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the serious die-off of honey bee colonies across the country. But they are in serious decline around the world from habitat loss, widespread pesticide use and the introduction of some diseases from European honeybees.

Plant heirloom varieties of native flowering plants in your garden. Bees tend to prefer pink, purple, and yellow flowers and need food from early spring to late fall. Chives are among the first productive flowers each spring for the bumbly bees. Now that i know a bit more about their buzz i'm looking forward to hearing it even more.