It is springtime, May 1st to be exact, and the Bumble Bee Recovery Team is out surveying for the second time of the 2021 bumble bee season. We are keen and excited to spot, capture, photograph, and release one of our first bumble bee queens!

Carlin’s Mining Bee (Andrena carlini) resting on a twig. Photo © Ellen Richard

Unfortunately, we did not find a single bumble bee at our first site of the day. However, this gave me, the new Bumble Bee Conservation Technician, the opportunity to photograph and appreciate insects other than bumble bees that were visiting the spring flowers along picturesque forest paths.

During our survey our eyes were drawn to the numerous Carlin’s mining bees that are out and about. Mining bees are some of the earliest emerging bees of the season. At a glance, her colouration and fluffiness closely resemble a small bumble bee worker. As seasoned entomologists who have been identifying bees for multiple years, we know she is not a bumble bee, but our excitement gets the better of us throughout the survey.  

This time of year, any bumble bees we expect to see would be queens – the mother of the colony. Queen bumble bees are often much larger than their worker bees. For example, common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) queens are 21-23mm in length, while workers are only 9-14mm in length. While these Carlin’s mining bee that kept catching my eye were an appropriate size for a worker bumble bee (~12mm), they are much smaller than the queens we are expecting to see and record.

Yellow banded bumble bee queen (Bombus terricola) on Sakura cherry. Photo © Ellen Richard

Another group of bees that we kept spotting through out our survey period were Nomada cuckoo bees. It would be impossible to mistake this bee for a bumble bee for many reasons, including her exceptional lack of plumose hairs and her waspy-like features. Since Nomada are parasitic bees, they actually don’t have to collect their own pollen – instead they take it from the nests of other bee species! Therefore, she is not as hairy as most bees since she does not have to use her body hairs to collect pollen to eat at a later date. Here she is sitting on a spring beauty flower, which is not much bigger than a thumbnail.

A cuckoo bee (Nomada sp.) on spring beauty Photo © Ellen Richard

It is not unusual for our early spring field work to end with us going home empty handed some days. This is because bumble bee queens are just starting to emerge from hibernation and not all species emerge during the same time periods; some emerge early (April) and some emerge late (May). It is important that we capture these bumble bees as soon as they emerge since we need to make sure queens collected for our conservation breeding have not yet established a nest site, which is their primary goal after emerging. We are hoping we can convince these bumble bee queens that we have a suitable home for her to make their colonies in our Bumble Bee Conservation Breeding Trailer!

Canada has an enormous diversity of facinating and unique native bees, home to 800+ species. The Bumble Bee Recovery team are very excited to be out in the field and eager to see our bumble bee friends. It is important to remember the diversity of bees, and May 20th is the perfect day to go out and explore the bees around you – it is World Bee Day!

Ellen Richard

Bumble Bee Conservation Technician

Ellen has completed a Master’s degree in environmental sciences at the University of Guelph. Her research focused on assessing non-bee pollinators forage patterns in an agricultural environment. She has a huge passion for the diversity of form and function in the insect world.

Ellen loves sharing this smaller, often overlooked world with others and spreading the excitement.

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