Nov 19 2010

Lame Duck Bees, who woulda thunk it?


Three bombus impatiens drones
The first sunlight finds three chilled, sleeping bumblebee drones.

While we’ve had a touch of frost, it’s not been anywhere near a killing frost – maybe we’ll make it to Thanksgiving before the season ends.

I’ve been greatly impressed by our “Lame-Duck” bees that seem to be near immortal. The bumblebee colonies are now dead; these bees are just living day-to-day on what nectar they can find. When it’s gone – or when they seriously freeze – it’s over. 

With bumblebees, the boys typically hang out in the flowers in late summer and early fall, waiting for the girls to come in the morning. In this case, it’s an exercise in futility – the girls aren’t coming – they are already asleep.

 Bombus impatiens drones A pair of dewy, huddled bumblebee drones sleep in a dahlia

Sleeping male bumblebees huddle together on a frosty Dixie morning. They’ve been hanging out on the dahlias, the cosmos, the marigolds and the morning glories in our yard.

While they are sleeping, you can’t awaken them. If you poke at them, they’ll feebly raise a leg in protest, but otherwise do nothing.

Sleeping Bombus impatiens drone Despite a touch of frost, he’ll still feebly raise a leg when poked

When the sun reaches them, and their sogginess slowly dries and they warm, they resume feeding on the nectar in the few remaining flowers.

 ”Good morning, world!”


As of November 18, we still have at least a dozen survivors left.

In past years we used to have great numbers of male Bombus fraternus on our late Bidens (tickseed) flowers. These have become very uncommon. Nowadays the only common bumblebee is B. impatiens – and it doesn’t have the numbers you used to see.

Bombus fraternus is a very large bumblebee and was fun to watch. You would see them move from flower to flower, feeding on them, until dusk. Then they would settle into a flower and very quickly – just sixty seconds or so – would go to sleep. At one moment, if you disturb them, they’d fly off. The next moment, they would not move, except maybe to raise a leg to protest the disturbance.

The last generation of bumblebees are not workers – they are queens and drones. After mating, the queens find hiding spots for the winter, and, if they survive, each will start a new colony in the spring. The drones spend nights in the flowers, waiting for those queens – a perfect place to be.

In the morning, when the sun warms them, they awaken as suddenly as they went to sleep.

 Other lame ducks:

 Red wasp A remnant red wasp rests on a leaf overnight.

A red wasp is in a similar position to the bumblebee drones. He’s probably too late to serve his purpose in life, so he’s just hanging on until freeze or starvation ends his brief life.

  Mid-November finds a syrphid fly still out and visiting flowers

 A tiny syrphid fly is probably the last of her generation, and will soon join the others in death.

 No lame duck here:

  While the nectar is beyond the reach of the honeybee’s tongue, she’ll “doggy-paddle” through the stamens for pollen each morning.

A honeybee is safe for now, because she has a warm home to which to return. Honeybees’ colonies should survive the winter intact, holding body heat by their great numbers and their reserve of stored “Summer Sunshine,” the honey that they keep to give them their energy.