Tuesday 28 May 2024


This fuzzy yellow and black striped fellow is a bumblebee in the genus Bombus sp., family Apidae. We know him from our gardens where we see them busily lapping up nectar and pollen from flowers with their long hairy tongues.

My Norwegian cousins on my mother's side call them humle. Norway is a wonderful place to be something wild as the wild places have not been disturbed by our hands. 

There are an impressive thirty-five species of bumblebee species that call Norway hjem (home), and one, Bombus consobrinus, boasts the longest tongue that they use to feast solely on Monkshood, genus Aconitum, you may know by the name Wolf's-bane.

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, and my family in the Pacific Northwest, bumblebees are known as ha̱mdzalat̕si — though I wonder if this is actually the word for a honey bee, Apis mellifera, as ha̱mdzat̕si is the word for a beehive.

I have a special fondness for all bees and look for them both in the garden and in First Nation art.

Bumblebees' habit of rolling around in flowers gives us a sense that these industrious insects are also playful. In First Nation art they provide levity — comic relief along with their cousins the mosquitoes and wasps — as First Nation dancers wear masks made to mimic their round faces, big round eyes and pointy stingers. A bit of artistic license is taken with their forms as each mask may have up to six stingers. The dancers weave amongst the watchful audience and swoop down to playfully give many of the guests a good, albeit gentle, poke. 

Honey bees actually do a little dance when they get back to the nest with news of an exciting new place to forage — truly they do. Bumblebees do not do a wee bee dance when they come home pleased with themselves from a successful foraging mission, but they do rush around excitedly, running to and fro to share their excitement. They are social learners, so this behaviour can signal those heading out to join them as they return to the perfect patch of wildflowers. 

Bumblebees are quite passive and usually sting in defence of their nest or if they feel threatened. Female bumblebees can sting several times and live on afterwards — unlike honeybees who hold back on their single sting as its barbs hook in once used and their exit shears it off, marking their demise.

They are important buzz pollinators both for our food crops and our wildflowers. Their wings beat at 130 times or more per second, literally shaking the pollen off the flowers with their vibration. 

And they truly are busy bees, spending their days fully focused on their work. Bumblebees collect and carry pollen and nectar back to the nest which may be as much as 25% to 75% of their body weight. 

And they are courteous — as they harvest each flower, they mark them with a particular scent to help others in their group know that the nectar is gone. 

The food they bring back to the nest is eaten to keep the hive healthy but is not used to make honey as each new season's queen bees hibernate over the winter and emerge reinvigorated to seek a new hive each Spring. She will choose a new site, primarily underground depending on the bumblebee species, and then set to work building wax cells for each of her fertilised eggs. 

Bumblebees are quite hardy. The plentiful hairs on their bodies are coated in oils that provide them with natural waterproofing. They can also generate more heat than their smaller, slender honey bee cousins, so they remain productive workers in cooler weather.    

We see the first bumblebees arise in the fossil record 100 million years ago and diversify alongside the earliest flowering plants. Their evolution is an entangled dance with the pollen and varied array of flowers that colour our world. 

We have found many wonderful examples within the fossil record, including a rather famous Eocene fossil bee found by a dear friend and naturalist who has left this Earth, Rene Savenye.

His namesake, H. Savenyei, is a lovely fossil halictine bee from Early Eocene deposits near Quilchena, British Columbia — and the first bee body-fossil known from the Okanagan Highlands — and indeed from Canada. 

It is a fitting homage, as bees symbolize honesty, playfulness and willingness to serve the community in our local First Nation lore and around the world — something Rene did his whole life.