As spring arrives in Canada, we celebrate the warm weather and our opportunity to shed our layers and feel the sun’s warmth on our skin. Animals and insects emerge and begin their busy spring activities as well and as the flowers begin to bloom, we notice the reappearance of bumble bees.

Where have have the bumble bees been all winter?

To find out, follow along as we tell you about Barbara the bumble bee and her life’s journey.

Barbara, a common eastern bumble bee, on Salvia sp. Photo © Tiffani Harrison

Barbara the bumble bee, more affectionately known as Barb, is a common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) queen. She is a next-generation queen, and was born in the early fall of 2020 to a large family, made up of a queen (her mother), many workers (her sisters), and males (her brothers). Their colony, or family, was buried underground, which is where bumble bees of this species typically nest.

A common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) exiting an underground artificial nest box. Photo © Hayley Tompkins

In the fall, Barb’s most important task before the cold weather arrives is finding a male to mate with. When she leaves the colony, she must mate with a male bumble bee from another colony, to produce offspring the following spring. It’s important that she mates successfully, as sperm from the male is needed for her to fertilize and produce female (worker) bees.

After mating, Barb will find a cozy place underground to hibernate for the winter.

The life cycle of a bumble bee © Jeremy Hemberger

As spring approaches, and the snow begins to melt, Barb waits for the perfect time to emerge from hibernation. As flowers are her only source of food, and provide the pollen and nectar that she needs, she must wait until the trees and other early spring flowers have bloomed. Dandelions are abundant early and throughout the spring and is a flower that our team commonly finds bumble bees on as early as March, and often late in to the spring and early summer,

A common eastern bumble bee queen (Bombus impatiens) on a dandelion in the early spring. Photo © Hayley Tompkins

Now that she has emerged from her winter hibernation, Barb’s biggest (and most important) task is finding a safe place to nest. She will look for holes in the ground where she can nest, such as abandoned rodent burrows. After she finds a nest site, she must start collecting pollen and nectar to store for her growing family and will begin laying eggs.

As a queen, Barb lives a solitary life, until she produces her first brood of workers. To produce workers (females), she must fertilize the egg with sperm from the male she mated with last fall. Barb will continue to forage for food, clean and protect the nest, and will incubate her eggs until they emerge as bumble bees.

When Barb has enough workers to perform all of the duties in the colony, she will no longer leave to collect any food. Instead, she will remain in the colony, laying eggs to produce workers, and eventually males and new queens for the next generation, where the cycle begins again.

A common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) worker collecting pollen from a honeysuckle flower. Photo © Tiffani Harrison

Thanks for joining us for Barb’s journey. We are looking forward to taking you on many more adventures in the field with our Bumble Bee Recovery Team.

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