Although my life has centred on honey bees, I realize that they are not the only bee species in town. Here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, we have about 200 species of bees – from giant bumble bees to rather petite sweat bees. Most have specific roles in our city’s ecology, pollinating wildflowers that few other insects visit.
Our local wild bees include over a dozen species of bumble bees. Through my research (investigating how honey bees and native bees interact), I learned to appreciate bumble bees for a lot of reasons, including their precarious lifecycle – a mated queen hibernates alone for seven or eight wintery months, emerges to find a home in the spring, lays a few dozen eggs (caring for the first batch by herself), then lays the eggs that become drones as well as next year’s queens before she dies in late summer). Anywhere along the way, the chain might be broken, the bee nest doomed.
Although the bumble bee lifecycle is insecure, we delight in seeing the husky bees affably buzzing among the flowers. Bumble bees look so clean and tidy that we are surprised by their unkempt nests with bits of leaf, seed, dead bees, and haphazardly strewn nectar and brood cell cups. (Bumble bees are messy housekeepers!)
Working with bumble bees, we also discover that they almost never sting while working away from their hive. However, they are indignant and persistent defenders when their homes are disturbed. I’ve been stung by bumble bees dozens of times while digging into nests during my research. They mostly strike eyes and lips, sting multiple times without losing stingers, and don’t respond to smoke. I find that their stings, while persistently striking an offender, have only about half the pain impact of honey bee stings, and a quarter that of wasps. Your own experience may vary.
A University of Calgary student, Tobyn Neame and their supervisor, Dr. Mindi Summers, have produced an excellent field guide of the various species of bumble bees in Calgary. Along with my suggestions and some data, the artwork of Sarah Ritchie and Tobyn Neame, and the contributions of taxonomist Lincoln Best (who can identify the species and sex of any local pollinator flying on its way to a meadow), the team produced a valuable book about bumble bees.
Even if you are not in the Calgary area, you will be enchanted by this field book’s information and artistry. The easy-to-use guide details locating, photographing, and identifying bumble bees. Many of these Calgary bumble bees also reside across the North American west, the prairies, and mountainous areas – so the guide’s utility stretches beyond our city. If your own environment does not include any of the species highlighted here, you may consider creating a similar book for your own community: Tobyn Neame’s work will inspire your effort.