June 16 – My Queen!

Today’s factismal: Female cuckoo bumblebees orchestrate coup d’etats in the hives of other bumble bees and then enslave the workers to feed their meglomaniacal horde.

Things get weird in the insect world. Consider the humble bumblebee (or the bumble humblebee if you live in Britain). Though they all get lumped together by the casual observer (i.e., “that small insect with a big stinger that makes honey”), there are actually significant differences between the 250 known species of bumblebee worldwide, about 50 of which live in the USA. Though most bumblebees are about an inch long, the resemblances stops there. They have a bewildering variety of color schemes (usually in alternating strips of black and something bold) and flower preferences (from cactus to roses to pines) and nesting sites (from old bird’s nests to mouse holes to wooden eaves) and temperature range (from near-arctic to warmly tropical).

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets) (My camera)

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets)
(My camera)

But perhaps the weirdest thing that bumblebees do is prey on other bumblebees. There is an entire group of bumblebees known as the cuckoo bumblebee. The 29 different species in this group don’t hunt for nectar to make into honey; instead, they look for colonies of other bumblebees to take over in a coup d’etat. What happens is a recently-fertilized female cuckoo bumblebee will seek out a flower with the characteristic pheromone left on it after it has been the meal for a bumblebee. She will then feed at that flower, covering herself with the odor of the plant and the pheromone. Next, she finds the bumblebee nest which is always nearby due to their limited flight range. Using the scent of the flower as a disguise, she sneaks into the nest and sidles up to the queen. With a sudden leap, the cuckoo bumblebee stabs the queen to death after which she emits a pheromone that calms the remaining bumblebees and turns them into her loyal slaves. The usurping cuckoo bumblebee then spends the rest of the season pumping out baby cuckoo bumblebees, which are tended to by the enslaved colony; the cruel kingdom only ends when winter comes, killing all of the bees (sounds like a Game of Thrones episode, doesn’t it?).

Two bumblebees doing their job (My camera)

Two bumblebees doing their job
(My camera)

Of course, that’s not the only weird thing about bumblebees. Another one is that we still don’t know the range of the various species of bumblebee, nor are we sure if their numbers are increasing or not. If you’d like to help answer those questions, then why not join the folks at Project Bumble Bee?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s