The Sleeping Queens

When you see that first big bumble bee in the spring, show respect: she’s a Queen.

Late in the fall, as temperatures drop, activity slows in bumble bees’ underground colonies. There’s really nothing left for the workers to do, after a new generation of males and fertile females has been produced, and they’ve mated. The workers and the males begin to die; eventually all are gone. Even the Queen dies. Only the recently mated females – the future Queens – survive – they leave the nest, find a new underground hiding place somewhere nearby, and enter hibernation. The old nest is now empty, motionless and silent; and the new Queens sleep, as winter grinds on up above.

Sometime in April or May the new Queens wake up and get to work. They’re very large – up to an inch and a quarter long – and energetic in pursuit of their mission. Do they have any memory of an earlier life, their Queen mother, or the dozens of dedicated sisters who fed and tended them? We humans think not; but if they don’t, then as far as they know, they and a few rival Queens are all that exist of their species.

Here’s one of these giant matriarchs in early spring, gathering food for her new colony:

The newly awakened Queen’s immediate tasks are to find a new nest location, and start gathering nectar and pollen. She’ll store that food in the new nest, in sticky clumps in which she’ll lay eggs. And she’ll continue gathering food until some of the eggs hatch, producing workers who can then take over the job. At that point, the Queen’s outdoor life ends and she never sees the light again. She remains in the nest, fed by workers and laying eggs.

Activity hits its peak in late summer as some of the newest eggs are becoming males, or fertile females, and not just sterile workers. The workers support them all.

At some unknown signal, the males and new, fertile females fly off to mate, then return to the nest. Soon, temperatures are falling again… and the dying begins. One Queen’s reign ends, one large family disappears… but future monarchs wait for their chance, in the cold and dark …

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