With the arrival of warmer temperatures and longer days comes the long-anticipated emergence of bumble bee queens. These queens have spent the winter underground in diapause, similar to a mammal in hibernation, and begin to emerge in the warmer spring months. The exact length of time spent underground depends on the species, but some species may be spending as long as nine months underground. Soon after emerging these queens must find a suitable nest habitat to begin establishing a nest, such as an old rodent hole, This Bombus impatiens queen below is looking for a suitable nest site.
A Bombus impatiens queen nest searching
When they aren’t searching for a nest, these queens must find floral resources to refuel after spending the winter in diapause. For this reason, spring flowering plants are incredibly important for Bombus queens. In Pennsylvania, forests are littered with patches of wild azalea, providing queens with some of their earliest pollen and nectar resources.
A Bombus sandersoni queen visiting a wild azalea in mid- May
Azaleas are part of the genus Rhododendron and the family Ericaceae, more commonly known as the heather family. This family also contains blueberries, huckleberries, and laurels, all of which can be found across Pennsylvania growing wild in forests, meadows, or bogs. Similar to azaleas, many of the species of blueberries and huckleberries will provide some of the earliest floral resources to bumble bee queens, in what would otherwise be quiet forests.
The characteristic bell-shaped flowers of vaccinium spp. are perfect for bumble bees
If queens are able to find a suitable nest site and survive the early spring months, they will begin establishing a colony and focus their energy on egg-laying. Over the next few months, the queens of the forest will be replaced with bumble bee workers that will take over the role of collecting pollen and nectar for the colony, and the early flowering wild azaleas and blueberries will be replaced with rhododendrons and laurels.