As the name might suggest, the goal of bumble bee conservation breeding is to breed more bumble bees. Let’s talk about how to breed bumble bees. You’d think that bumble bee mating would be easy, once you put the gynes (new, unmated queens) together with the males, their natural instincts would take over. The Bumble Team wishes it was that easy!

In 2021 we didn’t observe any successful mating between our bumble bee pairs of brown-belted bumble bees, but we did gain a lot of information and ideas of how to improve our process. Also, important to note that just because we didn’t observe them mating, doesn’t mean that they weren’t mating when we weren’t looking as our staff only checked on the pairs every 15-30 minutes maximum.

Mating trial set up outside WPC’s Bumble Bee Conservation Lab. Each pair is put into different enclosures to test whether some enclosure types are better than others for successful mating. Photo credit: Tiffani Harrison

After a lot of careful planning, we adjusted our protocols for the 2022 season in hopes that we would finally see them mate. We took many factors into consideration, including the following:

  • Male age
  • Gyne age
  • Environment/weather conditions
  • Exposure to the great outdoors

This year we once again had enough brown-belted bumble bee gynes and males to conduct mating trials (even more than last year) and thankfully, this year we’ve hit a milestone by actually witnessing a pair of our bees mating!

Since we’ve only seen one mating so far, we can’t draw too many conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. We know that our one successful mating happened at approximately 1:30pm on a sunny, windy day in August between a 6-day-old gyne and a 10-day-old male, for example, but is that because those conditions are what’s best, or was it just a fluke? If it was the conditions, then which conditions are most important? Is there some interaction between those different variables? Looking at a sample size of one, we simply don’t know.

Overall, we’re just hoping to see more mating so we can improve our success for next year, including with our focal species, the Special Concern yellow-banded bumble bee! For now, we’re happy to have met this milestone.

Video of successful bumble bee mating. The male is hanging off the back of the gyne’s abdomen.

Parker Smale

Native Pollinator Initiative

Parker’s passion for insects can be traced back to one fateful field entomology course, which also inspired his own entomology blog. As the lead technician for WPC’s 2022 bumble bee breeding program, he specializes in data wrangling, pollen chefery, and entomological match-making.