2004-06-11 / Community

Drawing On Science by Stephen Yaeger

Drawing On Science by Stephen Yaeger

Steve Yaeger is a retired high school science teacher (Beach Channel HS) who, between his art and photogra-phy, still keeps up with the sciences. He is a member of the Rockaway Museum Executive Board and Education Committee, Rockaway Music and Arts Council Executive Board, Rock-away Artists Alliance, and the Brook-lyn Watercolor Society.

Most everyone is familiar with the bumblebee; it is a large, plump insect about 3/4 to 1- 1/2 inches long. It has a black and yellow or orange, hairy body and looks similar to another large bee called the carpenter bee. If you think that you found a bumble-bee, but you are not sure, look care-fully at the bee's abdomen. If the ab-domen is black, hairless, and shiny then you have found a carpenter bee. The clue here is the hairless abdo-men. By the way if you see sawdust under a piece of wood and notice a perfectly round hole in the wood, you have probably located a carpenter bee’s home. There are three common types of bumblebees in our area, but unless you have experience in identi-fying them, you may have a problem telling them apart.

At this time of year you have a chance to see bumblebees collecting nectar and pollen from many flowers. The bumblebee can locate a suitable flower by using its eyes to look for the proper color and size. It can also se-lect the right flower by using its senses of taste and smell. If you see a bumblebee going from flower to flower carefully look for the yellow or orange mass on each of its hind legs. These are the pollen baskets. Pollen baskets are composed of pollen the bee has collected. These baskets serve as storage containers. They are emp-tied when the bee returns to its colony.

Unless the bee is threatened while searching for pollen it is harmless. But a threatened colony or nest of bumblebees is something else, and can result in a very nasty experience for the person or animal that is doing the threatening. Worker bees (they are all females) stand guard at the nest's entrance and will attack and sting anything that the bees feel are dangerous to the safety of their nest. In such a case, worker bees from within the nest will also join the attack. And to make matters worse bumblebees, unlike the honeybee, can sting more than once without losing its life.

The bumblebee nest includes a queen and female workers. The workers do not produce any eggs. In late spring or early summer it is usually the queen you see looking for pollen. By mid summer it would be the female workers that will be collecting the pollen and nectar. The queen is too busy laying her eggs. Males are not seen until late summer. The queen is usually larger than the workers and males. Males are smaller than the queen and worker. Worker bumblebee abdomens are more or less pointed and have a stinger. The males' abdomens are rounded and do not have a stinger.

At the beginning of summer queen bumble bees awake from hiberna-tion, which is a deep sleeping period. They were fertilized the previous summer when they left their nests and flew off for their mating flight. Then they spent the winter hidden in some secure place such as a decaying log waiting for the warm weather to ar-rive. When the queen awakens it will leave its "hideout" to seek a good place to make its nest: in the ground; a mouse, or bird's nest; or under mat-ted vegetation. Once she has selected her site she will then search for and collect pollen. When her pollen bas-kets are full she flies back to her nest. In the nest she rolls the pollen into a compact lump or ball. Then the queen will deposit up to eight eggs on the pollen ball. In about five days the eggs hatch into larvae (LAR-vey). Larvae are the immature stage of many insects. The most familiar of all larvae are butterfly and moth cater-pillars. The worm-like larvae feed on the pollen. Because the pollen is so nutritious the larvae will soon change into pupae (PEU-pay) and then into adult bumblebees. This change from egg to adult is called metamorpho-sis (meh-ta-MORE-foh-sis). If the larva does not look like the adult (as in this case) then the metamorphosis is known as complete metamor-phosis. If the larva has some resemblance to the adult (such as in grass-hoppers) it is called incomplete metamorphosis. Bumblebee metamorphosis takes about twenty-one days.

The adult workers take charge of the nest. They look after its defense and repair. The workers also collect pollen and nectar to feed newly hatched larvae. Nectar that is collected is held in special containers called honey pots. These containers are made of wax produced by the workers. The wax is combined with pollen to make the honey pots strong enough to hold the nectar. The nest, of course, must be expanded to make room for its new residents.

By late summer the nest may house about two hundred workers. At this time newly hatched larvae will de-velop into queens and males. The queens and males will then leave the nest to begin their mating flight and the nest or colony will soon come to an end. Once mating has occurred the males die. The queens return to the ground, dig down to about five inches below the soil and fall into hiberna-tion. Each queen over-winters until warm weather arrives once again and the bumblebee life cycle continues.

Bumblebees, as do honeybees, make a large contribution to the spread of wild flowers. The bees' ac-tions in collecting pollen and nectar result in the cross-pollination of many plant species.

Questions? Email Steve: Drawin-gonscience@ aol.com

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