What’s the Buzz in the Garden?

(repost from July 22, 2009 on Intelligence with the Earth)

It’s not for naught that the Monarda plant is also called beebalm. I spent half an hour on Monday morning photographing massive and beautiful bumblebees as they tottered and swayed in flight between scarlet-flowered plants in our upper garden. Although my huge black lens and I often came within 6 inches, the bees were too consumed with sipping nectar to take any notice. Must have been a good vintage!

The bees may have been tipsy, but they were highly efficient. How can I be sure? Today the Monarda patch looks scraggly and sad. Each inflorescence is almost bald, with only a few withered and fading flowers forming a crown around the perimeter. But it’s all good. When flowers fall away it’s a clear indication that the hard-working dumbledores (that’s Old English for bumblebee) did their work of pollination. The plant can now direct its energy toward making seeds.

Bumblebee on Monarda inflorescenceThe bee shown here is a queen of the species Bombus auricomus. It’s one of the largest bumblebees in Minnesota. Bombus means “boom,” referring to the bee’s loud vocalization (as compared to the murmuring buzz made by bumblers of other genera.) Auricomus is from the Latin, and translates as “with golden hair”—probably describing the distinctively wide swath of yellow hair covering the central tergites. (Tergites are armor-like segments of exoskeleton that form parallel rows down the bee’s abdomen. Females have 6, males 7. Good luck counting them!) For some reason, scientists have never bothered to give this bee a common name. So we’ll call her the golden-haired booming bee. A proud name for a lovely creature.

Faded MonardaBumblebees are not the exclusive pollinators on Monarda—hummingbirds love it, as do larger butterflies. It’s easy to see when the pollinators have done their work well.

Bumblebee on Liatris

For comparison, this is the much smaller Bombus bimaculatum—the two-spotted bumblebee. It’s pollinating my prairie blazing star (Liatris). I hope you can see the shining flecks of orange-gold pollen scattered across the bee’s lower abdomen.


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