As mentioned in the life cycle page, the males emerge from the nest
before the queens. When the males are not drinking nectar from flowers they fly
along regular routes stopping on the way. Studies in Scandinavia have shown
that each species has a favoured height for these patrols, some fairly close to
the ground, and others at around 15 metres. They stop at the same places on
route, there are probably easily seen landmarks, and deposit a fragrant
secretion from a gland between their mandibles (jaws). This tends to happen in
the morning, but they will replenish the marking after rain. Again the group of
chemicals that make up the secretion appears to be different in each species. Sladen, in his book, says that this secretion has a
smell that even humans could detect, and that it is very pleasant. It is not
known for sure, but it is assumed that the queens detect the males by flying
around at the correct height till they detect the fragrance of the males. Then
mating takes place. However mating is rarely observed in the wild. The bees
couple with the male hanging on to the queens back. Usually they mate on the
ground or foliage, but there have been sightings of largish queens flying with
a small male still attached to her. The time taken for matings also varies
widely from 10 to 80 minutes. However the time taken fro the transfer of sperm
from the male to the queen is only 2 minutes. The rest of the time is taken up
with waiting for the sticky genital plug passed from the male to the queen to
harden inside the queen's genital opening. This plug prevents the passage of
sperm from other matings, so this may be the reason that the bees stay stuck
together in a very vulnerable position, and may explain sightings of large
queens flying around with hapless males stuck behind them. Perhaps she just got
fed up once the necessary (for her anyway) bit was over.
What are the adaptations of the bumblebee body that make it special?
There are many, but the big three are:
- the hair - it is branched and very good for picking up pollen, also it is a good insulator allowing the bumblebee to forage at low temperatures
- the tongue - it is long and feathery enabling the bumblebee to reach nectar that other insects cannot reach
- the legs - they have hairs and brushes to gather the pollen off the body hairs and pack it into the pollen baskets to take home to the nest
Some bumblebees have a whitish or
yellow patch of hairs just below or between their eyes. In the European species
and, I believe, in some American species these are males. They cannot sting,
and generally they appear towards the end of the nest life, just before the new
queens hatch out.
The bumblebee's jaws are just not strong enough. They cannot bite or gnaw
through wood either.
The buzzing sound is heard when the bee makes the air vibrate
in some way. It used to be thought that the movement of the wings caused the
sound. However the bees can buzz even when the wings are at rest. So it is
probably the vibration of the muscles in the thorax causing the thorax to
vibrate that makes the buzzing sound.
I've heard that bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly, where does the story come from?
Human engineers with big brains said it was impossible for bumblebees to fly. But bumblebees with small brains didn't know this so continued to fly on in blissful ignorance. For more background on this story of our ignorance and arrogance read these links. Link
2, Link 3
Can a bumblebee sting or bite?
Actually it can do both, but it mandibles (jaws) are not strong enough to cause any pain to a human, and are used mainly for moulding the wax for the cocoons, honeypots and pollen stores. Also the mandibles are rounded, so have next to no piercing ability. Some species, mainly Bombus lucorum, do use their mandibles for nectar robbing, but it takes them ages to pierce through a flower to steal the nectar, so human skin is in no danger. This is also why a bumblebee nest in the house will cause no damage as they cannot drill or dig. Workers (females) and queens can sting (see this page for photographs etc.), and they have an unbarbed sting , so could sting repeatedly,unlike honey bees, but rarely do. The only time I have heard of bumblebees stinging is when they have been roughly handled, or their nest or the entrance to the nest is being tampered with. I have never been stung, and I have handled hundreds, measuring tongue lengths, head widths etc. I can honestly say they are the most accommodating insects to work with - hence my deep fondness for them.
Can a bumblebee get overweight?
No. Bumblebees, like all other insects, have what is called an exoskeleton. This simply means that the skeleton is on the outside of the body, unlike our skeleton which is on the inside. The skeleton of the main part of the body is made up of hard plates of chitin held together by more flexible thinner sections of chitin. This allows for some expansion and movement, but not much real growth. This is why, during the larval stage, the insect has to moult to grow bigger. And once the insect has emerged as an adult that is as big as it gets.