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written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
published- AUGUST 15, 2014


There has been much attention given to the devastating losses of honeybees in our country due to pesticide poisoning, mites, and more. Did you know that these valuable pollinators are not native to North America? The Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) was imported by European settlers who came to this country to farm in the 1600s. It was just one of the domesticated animals they brought along with them.

Honeybees create new colonies, increasing their numbers, with swarming behavior. Wild honeybees move out as a swarm from one colony to start a new colony. This swarming behavior was responsible for the honeybee migrating northward and westward from Virginia where they are first believed to have become established. By 1843 they had reached Kansas, then moved further westward when Mormons took them to Utah in 1848. Transporting hives by sea, a botanist introduced Western honeybees to California in 1853.

We have come to rely on the industrious honeybee for pollination of many of our commercial crops and are very concerned about the decline of both wild and domesticated Western honeybee populations. However we should not forget native pollinators, such as the over a dozen species of bumblebees in the Pacific Northwest. These large furry bees are also hard workers, helping to pollinate many of our fruit and vegetable crops.

Bumblebees nest primarily in underground cavities, such as abandoned mouse burrows. New nests are started by overwintering queens. Each queen starts a new colony by laying no more than six eggs in her new nest. These eggs hatch into sterile female workers who care for the queen, the additional brood she begets, and the nest.

Unlike much larger honeybee colonies, a bumblebee colony will have a maximum of a few hundred workers. At the end of the season the queen will lay both female and male eggs. These will hatch, emerge from the nest, and mate. The mated females become next year’s queens and find a protected place to spend the winter. All the other bumblebees in the colony, including the old queen, will die.

You must be familiar with the loud buzzing of bumblebees in the garden. You may think that this sound comes from the movement of their wings, but it is actually the rapid vibration of their flight muscles. They use these same vibrations to warm up their bodies to fly in cool weather, allowing them to fly earlier in the season and at lower temperatures than many other insects, including honeybees, can fly.

Like honeybees, bumblebees help with pollination by moving pollen from flower to flower as they work to collect nectar and pollen for feeding their colonies. However, they are also ‘buzz’ pollinators. The vibration of their flight muscles also vibrates the flower they are visiting. Some flowers are ‘self-pollinating’ and do not need a transfer of pollen from another flower. However, movement from wind or ‘buzz’ pollination is needed to shake the pollen off the anthers within the flower. Crops helped by buzz pollination include blueberries, cranberries, kiwi, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes.

Bumblebees, honeybees, and many other native pollinators are at risk. As gardeners, there are some very simple things we can do to help, like planting a pollinator garden that includes native flowering plants. Avoid using insecticides in the garden. Learn more about our native pollinators so you can protect their habitat and make sure these extremely valuable natural resources are not lost.

Published: 8/15/2014 11:36 AM



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