Re:Bumblebee Economics

Bumblebee on bladder campionHoneybees get all the glamor but I like the fat, fuzzy, comical bumblebee. So naturally I enjoyed Bumblebee Economics, by Bernd Heinrich. The economics of the title refer to the energy economy of how bumblebees spend their energy to gather energy in the form of nectar and pollen. It’s a problem every organism has to solve, and digging into the details of bumblebees’ solution can get you thinking about other lifeforms.

The book can be dry at times, as Heinrich delves not only into the lives of bumblebees, but also the details of how he studied them. For instance, he goes into great detail about how they manage their internal temperature, down to which segment of their bodies gets warmed first. This thermoregulation allows them to forage in colder, wetter weather than honeybees can, and Heinrich paints a lovely picture of bumblebees exploiting the plants in a foggy bog in Maine.

Like honeybees, bumblebees are social, but not nearly to the same degree. There might be only a hundred bees in the nest, which holds a cluster of rustic, cobbled-together honeypots. Also they don’t build up more than a couple days of surplus, so only a queen overwinters and she has to start a new colony in the spring.

Since bumblebees are generalists, they have to learn the best way to harvest each species of flower. Once individual bumblebees have figured out a few, they specialize in those flowers, leaving it to others to learn the ways of other flowers. Sometimes they cheat on the flower, biting through the backside to get directly at the nectar, which means the flower won’t be pollinated the way it likes.

There’s an intriguing appendix about raising bumblebees in captivity, though it’s probably a bit out of date by now. Bumblebees are used commercially, especially for pollinating hothouse tomatoes. The flowers need to be shaken and only bumbles have the mass. It’s something you can see them doing. Watch a bumblebee and you might hear her give an extra buzz while she’s gathering pollen. That’s the bee shaking out the flower’s booty.

A good book to read in the winter when you can’t find any bees to watch.