Bees lay path for next generation

Northwoods Notebook

(Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos) Native bumble bees usually form colonies that last only from late spring through late fall.

Most humans have the luxury of watching the seasons change many times. We often groan about what we have to endure when winter takes hold.

But for a number of species, the arrival of autumn signals they are not long for this world.

Take a good look at the wasps and bumble bees now hovering among the late-blooming flowers or at hummingbird feeders. They probably won’t be around after the next month or so.

Late summer and early fall are a pivotal period for bumble bees and wasps. It’s not spent preparing for the winter ahead, as with so many other species here in the northwoods, but on creating the next generation that will be left behind.

Unlike domestic honey bees, which are introduced, the native bumble bees and social wasps usually form colonies that last only from late spring through late fall.

A young fertilized queen will emerge from hibernation when spring warms enough to avoid the threat of frost. That queen will forage on its own to start a nest.

For bumble bees, that means making honey and gathering pollen to nurture its first batch of eggs, which depending on species may be raised in a ground burrow, thick grass cover, even trees or bird nesting boxes.

The three best-known social wasps in the area — paper wasps, yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets — all actually build paper nests made from chewed wood. While the adults survive primarily on nectar, their larvae are fed other insects, which can make wasps very beneficial around gardens.

Paper wasps are the ones that have umbrella-shaped nests, while bald-faced hornets build the impressive cones with thick outer layers of paper and a single opening at the bottom. Yellowjackets, like the bumble bees, favor nests in the ground or crevices.

The first broods of the year will be all workers, sterile females ready to take over the food collection duties from the queen. Once enough workers have been developed, the queen stays permanently at the nest and concentrates on egg production to boost the colony numbers. These colonies can swell to hundreds within a summer’s span.

When nearing the end of the summer, the queen and these colonies will shift to producing not workers but drones — fertile males that oddly enough grow from unfertilized eggs, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bumble Bees of Wisconsin website, https://wisconsinbumblebees.entomology.wisc.edu/ — and young queens that are developed by being fed differently as larvae than the workers.

Those new queens, called gynes, will be the only ones left once the cold returns. Like our spring peepers, they have the ability to produce a form of antifreeze “by synthesizing alcohol molecules” that protects them while in hibernation, according to the UW-Madison website.

The males sent out from the colonies will seek a mate — most unsuccessfully — and live a solitary bachelor’s existence after that, often sleeping in flowers until they die.

The original colony, too, will dwindle in coming weeks with autumn’s advance, as workers and even the old queen succumb to advanced age.

Only the new crop of queens, newly fertilized, will be able to tuck themselves away in leaf litter, burrows, under tree bark or in cracks in structures to wait until spring and start the cycle anew.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.


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