Tuesday, July 8, 2008

July MnHBKA Meeting

Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers met tonight and heard a presentation by a former student of Marla Spivak, named Ian Burns, shown at right pointing to what makes Bombus ternarius unique - all other Minnesota bumblebees are yellow and black, but this lady has a red tail. Ian presented to the group once before concerning his bumble bee research and I was looking forward to this update. He was there to talk about Befriending BumbleBees: A practical guide to raising local bumble bees,
which he co-wrote with Elaine Evans and Spivak.

Ian's talk was educational and entertaining. I can't remember what part of the UK he said he was from, but there is lots and lots of bee pollinated heather. His talk focused on the most common bumblebee in our area, Bombus impatiens. What follows is applicable only to that species.

Bumblebees have a very different natural history than the honeybees I am used to. The bumblebee queen goes to ground in the winter, and emerges in the Spring. She finds a suitable home - often an abandoned mouse nest. She forages for pollen and assembles it into a ball in which she lays 6 eggs. She continues to forage for pollen and nectar to feed the larvae. Bumblebees don't make honey, because they need no stores to make it through the winter. The colony will die, except for the queen and she will be dormant through the winter. Once the six eggs hatch, and the pupae emerge, the queen lays another six, and leaves her daughters to care for the larvae. She now is in full egg-laying mode and will continue producing female young until a particular point in time (Ian didn't have time to get into the whys behind the timing) when she switches over to males, which are the result on the queen laying infertile eggs.

There are something between 17 and 21 species of bumblebee in Minnesota. The are all beautiful and fuzzy and fly just like bees. Ian showed a slide of a bee-mimic. It was actually a fly - but it had many of us fooled. To be fair, the wings were not visible, so it wasn't that easy to tell. Globally, there are around 250 species of bumblebee, with China having the most. The province of Sichuan has 63. Ian showed a photo of the area that looked like the view of the Rockies from Calgary. Gorgeous. And full of wildflowers.

The Dutch have apparently perfected the rearing of bumblebees for commercial purposes - particularly tomatoes. Inside the massive greenhouses where tomatoes are grown, bumblebees work at pollinating the yellow blooms that will become great big red beauties. The pollen in the anthers of the tomato flower has to be shaken out - it is encapsulated. The bee grabs on and buzzes and gets dsted with pollen. Then she combs it from all over her body and onto her back legs. In these greenhouses, mechanical vibrators are also used to pollinate tomatoes. I'm not going to say the obvious - it was already insinuated at the meeting.

Besides tomatoes, bumblebees pollinate blueberries, squash, cranberries and raspberries. Other insects pollinate these plants as well, but bumblebees are particularly efficient. Ian did a great job and we kept him very late with lots of questions.
Our wonderful president Dan (center) had an easy time that night. We has a couple good show and share contributions - drone comb and a review of blooming bee plants. We have a great membership - about 220 by the last count. Mostly from the metro area. Funny, when you consider how many cities have outright bans against beekeeping. I suspect our members mostly do what I do, and keep bees outside of the city on farms and in orchards and at other sympathetic locations. There are no better people than bee people. We are able to still our racing hearts and minds, balance our egos enough to bow to the dynamics of a box of insects, and laugh, laugh, laugh when our hobby takes flight and abandons us for better digs. Well, maybe we don't laugh right away, but eventually we do. There are lots of other equally good people too, but bee people know how to love lowly insects even after being stung by them. Good practice for loving people.

No comments: