Make Way for the Queen(s)!

by Watershed Coordinator David Stein

Common Eastern Queen Bumble Bee

Spring has officially sprung here in Central Iowa, this means that in between the gross days of rain and mud, flowers have started to bloom, birds are singing, and most importantly for us at Prairie Rivers, bees have started to buzz again.  Now, these aren’t just any bees, some of the first to emerge are the big, bulky bumble bee queens waking up from their long winter of hibernation.  You can easily tell when you see a queen bumble bee, these insects are huge and loud.  Queen bumble bees here in Iowa can reach sizes of up to 27 millimeters in length, that’s over an inch long!  With that tremendous size comes a tremendous appetite. 

These queens are new at their jobs, only emerging from their original hives in the previous fall.  They originally spent their days, not ruling over a colony, but instead gathering the food and energy they needed to survive a winter of hibernation, as well as finding a mate to fertilize her eggs for the upcoming year.  As fall ended, the new queens, now full of nectar, pollen, and eggs needed to find a place to spend the winter so they wouldn’t freeze.  Often these queens find a nice insulated place such as a pile of leaves, sticks, or an abandoned rodent hole to spend the winter.  She sleeps through the season, waiting patiently for warmer weather to start again.  That spring, around March and April, the queens emerge and immediately get to work.

The first thing she needs to do is find a site to start a colony.  Again, a secluded safe spot is needed for this.  The queens will use a variety of places like mammal dens, thick grass, various holes in the ground, and even under human-made structures.  To build her colony, the queen needs plenty of pollen and nectar not only to feed her young, but to construct the walls of the hive.  This puts a major importance of early spring blooming flowers, as these are the ones that queens will exclusively feed off of.  The new colony starts as soon as the first egg cells are built.  These cells are a wax incubator for the baby workers to grow.  An egg is placed in a cell, surrounded by nectar and pollen.  The egg will hatch into a larva, who will then consume all the available food, grow into a pupa, and finally emerge as an adult worker bee.  The worker will then venture out to collect more nectar and pollen to feed even more workers through the season.  In the fall new queens will be made to repeat the cycle again next year.

So how can you help bumble bee queens on your land this spring?  The best place to start is to provide them with the royal feast that they deserve.  Provide the queens with as many spring blooming flowers as you can.  Some good places to start are with our native trees.  Spring blooming trees here in Iowa include our native willows, wild plum, dogwoods, crabapple, and serviceberry.  You can also help by diversifying your lawn.  Stop thinking of flowers like clover and dandelions as weeds.  These are vital early flowers that provide a massive amount of both nectar and pollen.  If you have to remove them from your yard, wait until after they finish flowering.  Finally, keep a close eye on the bumble bee queens that you find, as they could be a species in need.  If you find a queen bumble bee, take a few pictures and upload them to a monitoring site like iNaturalist or Bumble Bee Watch.  Just make sure that you don’t touch, hold, or handle the queens as this will stress them out.  With your help, we can give our queen bumble bees the royal treatment his spring.

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