Plants & Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 2015


Laden with pollen and fueled with nectar, bumblebees, like the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) pictured here, are critically linked to the native flora of Missouri. A great variety of plants benefit from pollination by bumblebees, and many species, including Dutchman’s breeches, shooting star, gentians, and jewelweed, are largely dependent on bumblebees for pollination.

There are seven common species of bumblebees in Missouri, and all are similar in appearance with large, fuzzy bodies of black and yellow, usually banded in coloration about the abdomen. Many people confuse the carpenter bee with bumblebees because of its similar shape and color. Carpenter bees are easily distinguished from the bumblebee by their smooth (non-fuzzy) abdomen.

When I decided to write a story about bumblebees, I consulted with my friend Mike Arduser, a retired natural heritage biologist from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Mike is a nationally recognized expert on pollinators, especially bees. Mike and I often travel to natural areas in Missouri and beyond, I with my camera and Mike with his bee-collecting supplies. It’s a joy to watch him snatch a bee from a flower with his thumb and two fingers to avoid being stung. It’s reminiscent of Mr. Miyagi from the movie “The Karate Kid” as he attempted to pluck a fly from the air with his chopsticks.

I asked Mike about the bee’s bulging pollen sacs, as seen here in the featured photo. He explained that the bee collects pollen over its fuzzy body as it forages, and then grooms with its legs to move the material into pollen baskets of stiff hairs. This provides for efficient transport of large pollen loads back to the nest. Bumblebees typically nest in cavities below ground but may also nest in brush piles, trash heaps, bird houses, and other areas with cover.

Mike describes bumblebees as “eusocial,” meaning they have a very high level of social organization within their colony. In spring, a single fertilized female (queen) builds a large, irregular cell of wax and pollen and stocks it with pollen and nectar. Several eggs are laid in the cell. The female then enlarges it and supplies the young with additional food. Her offspring will become workers and take over the collection of pollen and nectar, feeding of young, and other nest duties. A colony can grow in size to as many as 200 workers before it gradually declines in autumn. Bumblebee colonies are annual, similar to an annual plant. Only potentially new queens, called gynes, survive the winter by hibernating underground.

In spring, having already mated in the previous year, some of them will be successful in beginning the process anew by building a colony with the help of their own offspring. Mike explained how life-or-death battles between gynes often occur as they compete for premium nest sites. In a cruel twist, a late emerging gyne might take over the nest of a queen that surfaced earlier, thus recruiting the burgeoning workforce of her overtaken foe.

In parting, Mike left me with a philosophical reminder: “People shouldn’t think of plants and bees as separate entities; they are intimately entwined in nature.”

—Story and photographs by Danny Brown

We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler