top of page
  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Buzzed on Bees

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

This summer I decided to get better acquainted with my old friends, the bees.

We’ve shared space for pretty much my whole life but, when I thought about it, I realized that I knew practically nothing about them other than that they are plentiful, they give us honey and they are essential for pollination. I didn’t even know until recently, for example, that honeybees are not native to the Americas but were brought to the New World by European colonists in the early seventeenth century. Technically speaking, they are an invasive species whose population, like that of the settlers who brought them here, has ballooned to the point where they are now the dominant variant of their particular branch of Kingdom Animalia, crowding out their indigenous counterparts. Not to disparage the domesticated buzzbombs; they do good work making honey and pollinating a lot of our agricultural crops. It’s the wild, native bees, though, that I wanted to learn more about.

I feel a great fondness for ‘our’ bees, the residents that populate our little acreage nestled in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia.

“Hello, you lovelies,” I greet them as they emerge every spring to start their work of gathering pollen and nectar from the early-blooming flowers. They pay me no mind. Bees have little time for chitchat; they are, well, you know…busy.

Our garden poppies are a favourite source of nectar and pollen for bees.

Still, I feel that they know me. After all, we’ve been repeating this little ritual for a couple of decades now, and I’m sure they recognize me as a friend and ally, or at least a familiar accoutrement to the lawns and garden beds that become their foraging grounds during the spring and summer.

I know, I know. These are not the same individuals that I communed with in decades past. In fact, they are not even the same bee-folk I greeted last year; those gentle souls all flew off to their ever-blooming Elysian meadows when the frost arrived in the fall. But I like to think that the hive-mind remembers, and it has me noted as something of a fellow bumbler: non-threatening, grows flowering plants, leaves the dandelions in the lawn.

I guess this is the point where I should confess to a degree of species favouritism. Only about 500 of the world’s 20,000 bee species make BC their home, and of those only 32 or so are bumblebees, the branch of the family that seems to have stolen my heart. I’m sure a touch of anthropomorphic bias plays a role in my disproportionate affection for the genus Bombus. Somehow those big, furry bodies emit a warm and welcoming vibe, triggering a shot of nostalgia, maybe, for the comfort that some stuffed toy brought me as a child. Or maybe it’s just that the bumblers are the eye candy of the bee world, more recognizable than their often diminutive and drably adorned cousins who go largely unnoticed except for that background hum that vibrates, almost subliminally, through the summertime gardens, meadows and roadsides of the world.

A bumblebee foraging on blueberry blossoms in our garden.

Something I've learned about bumblebees is that they, like all the indigenous bees north of Mexico, do not produce honey. They do not overwinter and therefore don’t need to store food, relying instead on the nectar and pollen that they gather throughout their short, three-season lifespans. However, that doesn't mean the stories of “beelining," where intrepid pioneers follow wild bees to their nests in the forest are myth; it’s just that those ‘wild’ bees were (and still are) feral honeybees that flew the coop (or hive, more accurately) and returned to their primeval lifestyle in the woods. Before the Europeans brought their bees there was no wild honey here on Turtle Island.

Pollen is the wild bees’ main source of protein, and it’s their behaviour of gathering both nectar and pollen to feed themselves and their offspring that makes bees, both wild and domesticated, such important pollinators of plants. Most other insects seek out the nectar alone, which makes them far less effective as pollinators. It’s estimated that over 80 percent of flowering plants around the world are pollinated by wild bees. Bumblebees, in particular, have evolved a behaviour that makes them essential for pollinating certain plants, including tomatoes. Tomato flowers don’t produce nectar, but bumblebees visit them anyway to collect the pollen, which they shake loose from the anthers by vibrating their wing muscles, a process known as “floral sonication” or “buzz pollination.” Now, whenever I pick a tomato in the greenhouse, I give thanks to the bumblebees, without whose music-making that tomato would not be.

This bumbler spent the night clinging to the underside of a tomato plant in our greenhouse, only to begin its work once more when the sun warmed it in the morning.

I’ve been trying to identify some of the bumblers buzzing around our garden and flower beds, but I’m finding it’s not that easy. There are around twenty species that reside here in southeastern BC and they often have several coloration variations. On top of that, the queens, males and female workers can differ from one another in size, form and coloration as well. A few species are quite distinctive and identifiable by eye but, for most, a dead body and a magnifying glass (or some good close-up photos) are required for a positive ID. So far, I’m on a first-name basis with the white-shouldered, red-belted, Nevada and western bumblebees, but most of the others are still strangers to me. The chart below, from the guidebook Bumblebees of North America, gives an indication of just how much variation can occur in just one species.

This chart from Bumblebees of North America (Princeton University Press)

shows all the possible variations in just one species: Bombus mixtus.

Something I’ve also noticed, over the years, is that bees are particular as to the flowers they choose for nectar and pollen gathering. In our garden, white-shouldered bumblebees, Bombus appositus, key in on rhododendrons, delphiniums and bergamot, aka bee balm. A small tribe of what I think might be Bombus vagans, on the other hand, is all over the pink-and-white mullein that we have growing along the wall of an outbuilding, working their patch day in, day out, until the last blossom fades, while honeybees and a couple of smaller bumblebee species are drawn to the scattered poppies that volunteer every year in the vegetable garden. The mullein and bergamot seemingly host only a few species, but the oregano pulls in a multifarious crowd. Once it flowers in late July, it becomes a seething free-for-all of bees, wasps, butterflies and insects of every ilk. I learned that there is even a lovely name, "flower constancy," for the tendency of bees to remain loyal to certain plant species. Somehow, knowing this about my apian sisters only increases my affection for them. Among all their other virtues they are also steadfast and true.

A white-shouldered bumblebee foraging on bergamot.

The circle of life for my bumblebee cohabitants has a short circumference: less than a year. The new queens, or gynes, hatch and emerge as adults in the late summer. As a newly hatched queen goes about her business of gathering pollen and nectar, she is sought out by a male from a different colony, who mates with her and deposits his sperm into a small container called a spermatheca located in the queen's vagina, where it is stored until the spring. At this point the male has fulfilled his life’s sole purpose, and he will soon find a leaf or flower upon which to settle and gently fade out of existence. The same fate awaits the other bees of the colony; only the new queen and her counterparts remain to complete the cycle. She stays active into the fall, seeking out any late-blooming flowers on which to feed and build up her reserves of body fat. When the time is right, she finds a suitable spot, burrows into the ground and enters a torpid state of suspended animation to wait out the long months of winter until, much like a dormant seed, she is awakened by the warmth of the spring sun.

Bee romance: A male white-shouldered bumblebee mating with a queen on a bergamot blossom.

If she has survived, she digs herself out of her self-imposed entombment and starts about the business of establishing a new colony: finding a nest site, constructing some initial infrastructure, then laying, hatching and nurturing a new set of workers, males and queens. She uses the sperm stored in her body to fertilize the eggs that will become workers, and then later will lay unfertilized eggs that will become males via a process called haplodiploidy. The colony will eventually reach a population of a few dozen to a few hundred bees and then, after only a few short months, will die out, its next incarnation harboured in the eggs of a few queens, sleeping under the snow, awaiting the return of the April sun. And thus, with luck, will the circle be unbroken.

Red-belted bee feeding on oregano flowers.

It's tempting, when musing about the short life of bees, to anthropomorphise; to wonder, perhaps, if any meaning can be gleaned from the bees’ story—awakening into existence, working furiously for a few months and then dying—repeated year after year over millennia. Yes, they are a vital element in the cycle of life, assuring the perpetuation of the planet’s flora with their busy labour. But what’s in it for the bee? For all her herculean efforts, is her only reward finding a nice flower or blade of grass on which to die? Not very relatable for humans, I would venture, with all our endless searching for gratification, amusement, love or spiritual fulfillment.

The thing is, in the bee world the needs of the individual are subjugated to those of the collective. A bee colony is the ideal model, perhaps, for a communal society. There are no egos, no politics, no personality conflicts, no power struggles. The rights, needs and desires of the individual, which have taken a front seat in the current phase of our so-called civilization, are foreign concepts to the bee. The humble bumble gives it all up for the greater good, thus assuring the continuation of her species through the ages. Surely some food for thought there, as our own species careens precariously close to the edge of catastrophe.

Not that my friends the bumblers have the time to contemplate such matters. It’s impossible to divine what goes on in the tiny brain of the bee, but I like to think her experience is something akin to being at peace with the world and her place in it. She does her work with diligence and fervour, never questioning her role, never feeling resentful, dissatisfied or disillusioned. She just contentedly lives the life she has been given.

Maybe the lesson, then, if there is one, is simply that life is its own reward. It brings to mind the sentiment expressed in Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger’s wistful ballad, The Joy of Living:
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living

A couple of links:

Bumblebees of North America - This handbook published by Princeton University Press has information on identification and behaviour of all the North American species.

Conservation: the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation website has a lot of good information on conservation measures for insects, including this booklet, downloadable as a PDF file, on bumblebees in particular.

97 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page