WPC’s Bumble Bee Breeding Lab. Photo: Cole Blair

WPC researchers are hard at work learning how to save endangered species through captive breeding. For bumble bees, their breeding research is tailored to the yellow-banded bumble bee (B. terricola, below) which is listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act as ‘Special Concern’.

Our aim is to establish a self-sustaining population and release these new queens to further boost the wild populations.

Each year WPC’s Bumble Bee Conservation Lab establishes breeding colonies of the yellow-banded bumble bee. If all goes well in the lab, these colonies produce workers, then males, and finally new queens who will overwinter!

Indoor mating set up – no matter the weather! Courtship behaviour, increased speed, below. Photo and video: Parker Smale

Mating behaviour

WPC’s conservation breeding lab breeds native at-risk bumble bees, focusing on the yellow-banded bumble bee, which is listed as Special Concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, but we also rear brown belted bumble bees and tri-coloured bumble bees for comparison in our experiments.

We set up the mating cages with two males and one gyne (a new queen). And now, we just wait for the magic to happen, right? Well, it often isn’t so simple — there are many steps of courtship that determine whether or not the bees mate successfully.

Bumble bee courtship is initiated by males, but strategies for this can differ between species. Perching, for example, is a pre-mating behaviour in which males wait at a vantage point and dart out to meet anything passing by. Perching is typically associated with species that have enlarged eyes in the males (such as our brown belted bumble bees). Patrolling is a much more common pre-mating behavior, where males patrol the same flight paths over and over with the hopes of finding a queen.

A perching or patrolling male has found a queen!

What steps do they take next?

The male will attempt to get closer, perhaps even chasing the queen. He will begin tapping or stroking the queen with its legs and/or antenna to assess the receptiveness of the queen. Assuming the queen is receptive, the rest is as you would expect! The male climbs onto the queen from the rear and copulation begins. Once finished, the male will dismount the queen and the two go their separate ways.

If the queen is not receptive to the male at any point in its courtship, she will often lift up her leg in defense. In our experience,a a persistent male may even be chased away by a non-receptive queen!

Within our mating trials, we will have the bees in their cages for the whole work day, or as long as it takes for us to confirm copulation. Sometimes the bees are unwilling, while other times the bees seem more than happy to cooperate!

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