Updated: 26th February 2021
All new bumble bee colonies start with a queen, who seeks out a suitable location for a nest, and establishes initially on her own, making wax pots for developing larvae and storing food for herself and her offspring. As new workers emerge from the nest, they help to grow the colony.
In comparison with honey bee queens with a potential life span lasting several years, the queen bumble bee can live for up to 12 months (including hibernation time) - yet it's still longer than the shorter lives of her worker and male off spring.
The bumble bee queen will emerge from hibernation, already impregnated from the previous year, and will then begin to feed. Nectar will provide her with much needed energy, whilst pollen will give protein, and help her ovaries to develop.
She will then begin the important endeavour of finding a suitable nest site. You may see them early in the year, zig-zagging low across the grass, exploring banks and hedgerow bottoms, and possibly bumping into windows as they try to find a suitable place to establish a nest and rear a colony.
Nest sites, due to habitat destruction, have become increasingly
scarce, and it is believed queens will even fight over suitable sites. However, once
a suitable nest site has been found, the queen will then begin to
establish her colony. Seeing a queen bumble bee carrying pollen loads on
her legs is a signal that the establishment of a colony is now
The queen bumble bee is larger than the workers and males she produces. Unlike the female workers, she has the ability to control the sex of the eggs she lays through the use of a chemical signal (pheromone). Worker bumble bees can produce eggs too, but their offspring will be male bees only.
Queens will sometimes face competition from cuckoo bumble bees. Cuckoos attempt to take over a nest, sometimes (but not always) killing the resident queen if successful.
Unlike the host, cuckoo species are unable to carry pollen and secrete wax to make cells.
At the end of the season, only the newly emerged queen bumble bees will survive (although there are some exceptions in warm climates). They will mate, and hibernate to establish new colonies the following year. New queens emerge from colonies toward the end of the season, and begin feeding to lay down fat reserves ready for hibernation.
In truth, a colony can only be deemed successful if it has had the opportunity to successfully produce queens that can mate and hibernate, and thus ensure future generations.
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