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Don’t Step on a Bee Day

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Don’t Step on a Bee Day was created as a reminder to appreciate our bees and all the good they do for us. They pollinate about one-third of our food crops. They provide us with honey. Honey has been a sought-after delight in many cultures, and climbing tall trees, risking falling injuries, and enduring stings was well worth it for such a prize. In Greek mythology, even the gods themselves consumed honey. Bees are indicator species which act as the “canary in the coal mine”; they are among the first animals to succumb to environmental degradation. Bees have had a rough time lately: the rusty-patched bumble bee was recently put on the endangered species list, and then there’s colony collapse disorder, a multitude of bee parasites and diseases, and pollinator decline in general. We’re taking a different spin on the holiday and focusing on bees that nest in the ground – mainly bumble bees – and taking care not to trample them for a variety of reasons (but mainly for your safety).

Bumble bees are much larger than their honey bee cousins. They are plump and fuzzy with some combination of yellow, black, white, or orange. Some have stripes but some do not. Their bright and attractive colors advertise that they can and will sting if provoked. Carpenter bees, which bore holes through unpainted wood and leave behind piles of sawdust, may be mistaken for bumble bees, but can be differentiated by having smooth heads and smooth abdomens. Bumble bees are furry all over which serves to insulate them in chilly weather, allowing them to forage in conditions that would be too cold for honey bees and most wasps.

Bumble bee colonies are small, usually consisting of 50 to 400 individuals. Four hundred bees only sounds like a lot until you compare that number to a typical honey bee colony which can easily get into the tens of thousands. While honey bees like to nest aerially, like in trees holes, bumble bees prefer to nest in the ground, sometimes utilizing old rodent burrows.

Unlike honey bees which can only sting once, bumble bees can sting multiple times. They are not aggressive while foraging on flowers but are defensive of their nest like most colony insects. Stings normally occur when a person or pet gets too close to an underground nest. A single sting incurred on your property may not necessarily indicate that a nest is nearby. Homeowners usually sustain several stings before they become concerned enough to elicit the help of a pest control company. Oftentimes a single sting on a small child is enough for a homeowner to take action.

To avoid stepping on bumble bee nests or the bees themselves, inspect your property for signs of worker bees. If large bees are seemingly disappearing into or emerging from tall grass or vegetation, there may be a hidden subterranean nest. A nest on the edge of your property may never bother you, and leaving them alone and practicing tolerance is an option. Bumble bees, like most bees, are beneficial insects that should only be controlled when human safety is at stake. However, remember that landscaping work like lawnmowing, performed by you or your neighbors, may disturb the nest and its buzzing inhabitants. If you need to approach the nest for any reason, be sure to wear long sleeves, long pants, socks, and shoes and only do so at night when the bees are inactive.

On cool days or following severe weather, worker bees can be found on the ground or sidewalk. They look healthy but are unable to fly. Foraging bees sometimes get caught out in the rain and run out of energy before they can make it back to their nest. Energy is also required for them to “shiver” which helps them to warm up their flight muscles. Without a source of energy, they will die. You can help these bees refuel by offering honey or sugar water. Offer with a spoon, a coffee stirrer, or other utensil to keep your distance. While these bees are not likely to sting, it is important to remember that they are still wild animals.

References:
Bumblebee nests. Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Website: http://bumblebeeconservation.org/about-bees/habitats/bumblebee-nests/. Accessed July 2017.