When you think of types of pets, you usually think of dogs and cats, maybe birds and fish, or perhaps a hamster. But for WPC biologist, Victoria MacPhail, her current “pets” are bumble bees! She has been taking care of the yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola) queens that were collected in Ontario this spring as part of our captive-breeding project.

 

Bumble bees normally nest underground in abandoned rodent nests (e.g. mice, chipmunks), so we must try to mimic these conditions for our captive bumble bees. No natural light reaches the bees deep in their nests so Victoria closed the blinds and put up a dark blanket over the room’s window to make it as dark as possible. As bees cannot see the color red, a red light bulb is used instead of a normal white light to allow her to see the bees when it is time to feed them.

 

To mimic the conditions of the natural underground bumble bee nest, we block all natural and white light, using a red light for vision when feeding.  Note the 6 wooden-box set-ups to the right side of the room.

To mimic the conditions of the natural underground bumble bee nest, we block all natural and white light, using a red light for vision when feeding. Note the 6 wooden-box set-ups to the right side of the room.

In the wild, bees will visit hundreds if not thousands of flowers to collect pollen (protein) and nectar (carbohydrates). As our bees are not allowed to go outside and forage, we need to provide food to them right in their containers. But it would be hard to give them enough fresh flowers, so we give them a substitute: a small container of 30% sugar solution and a pea-sized ball of pollen every day. The pollen was actually collected by honeybees and then brushed off their legs by a pollen trap as they enter their hives, allowing us to use it for other purposes.

 

You can see the pollen ball and sugar tube in this photo: one of the drawbacks to using the plastic containers is that they do not breathe as well as the wooden boxes, and thus sometimes the pollen gets a bit soft.

You can see the pollen ball and sugar tube in this photo: one of the drawbacks to using the plastic containers is that they do not breathe as well as the wooden boxes, and thus sometimes the pollen gets a bit soft.

What makes a house a home for bumble bees? Well, like humans, sometimes it all comes down to the furnishings. It’s not easy to find a bunch of mouse or chipmunk fur though, so we give our bees some upholstery cotton that they can use to make their nest nice and cozy.

 

The inside of the wooden box set-up: bees can move from the small box to the big box through a small hole.  Some bees have even brought cotton from the small box into the big box!

The inside of the wooden box set-up: bees can move from the small box to the big box through a small hole. Some bees have even brought cotton from the small box into the big box!

We have been testing out two main types of containers with this project: a small wooden box that is attached to a larger wooden box and a round “ziplock” plastic container. The bees have had better survival and generally appear “happier” in the wooden boxes than the plastic containers. Although we have had several fatalities for unknown reasons, hopefully some will lay eggs in these nests soon!

The majority of our 19 collected queens started off in plastic containers that had air holes punched in their top and upper sides.

The majority of our 19 collected queens started off in plastic containers that had air holes punched in their top and upper sides.