Thursday, September 24, 2009



Wee hoverin’, fleein’ ferlie fello’,
Wi’ yer stripes o’ black and yello’
Yer ever sae bonnie, so ye ur,
Like a spring lamb - only smaller and withoot the fur,
But see if ye ever sting me oan the bum again,
Ah’m gonnae jump on yer heid so Ah um.

Stuart McLean (From No’ Rabbie Burns)

             I have a question for all you linguists out there:  is there any connection between the word “bumble”, meaning  to blunder, and the word “bumblebee”?  I have not found any; yet it seems that the reputation of the poor bumblebee has been tarnished by the mythology that it  is a bungler.  There is of course the famous and spurious accusation that the bumblebee is without the aerodynamic ability to fly and so he mysteriously bumbles along:  

Imperfect by design
Ungainly sporadic jerks define gawky movements
Flawed in nearly every way
A veritable outcast 
Among hive-minded conformity[1]

Yet “blissfully ignorant of the overwhelming odds”, the bumblebee flies on. 

         I hasten to the defense of this small, bright and busy creature that has found its way into our poetry, literature, art and music.  She is most remarkable.  I say “she” for a reason - the females raise the young, do the work and defend the colony, while  the males do no work, and, should they win the lottery, they get to mate with a virgin queen.  (an arrangement considered by some to be on all counts better than we humans have).  

         We need the bumblebee.  Our best-known pollinator, the honey bee, is plagued with disease and collapse of its colonies.  The bumblebee is a formidable pollinator.  It can fly at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and has  been known to fly at 32 degrees, temperatures lower than those at which the honey bee can fly.  They have longer tongues than honey bees and can pollinate flowers with long, narrow corollas, such as clover, of which bumblebees are the best pollinator.   Their hairy bodies can easily pick up and transfer pollen.  Perhaps most significantly, they can vibrate their flight muscles to create the extraordinary wing beat of around 200 beats per second.  They can uncouple the flight muscles from the wings and use the vibration to warm their bodies and for keeping brood warm, and, of great importance, to perform “buzz pollination”.  

         The anther, the pollen-bearing organ, of the modern tomato blossom is so shaped that the pollen is not easily released without outside help, being only able to release pollen when vibrated at about 400 hz.  The bumblebee seizes the anther  and vibrates its flight muscles, releasing pollen grains that otherwise would have remained in the anther.  As a result, bumblebees are raised commercially to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.  Now, nearly every European tomato owes its existence to the bumblebee.  They are also the chief pollinators of red clover, alfalfa, field beans, peas, runner beans, tomatoes, and, in some areas, cotton, raspberries, apple, plum blossom, oilseed rape, sunflowers, strawberries, currants and brambles.

         Bumblebee populations are in serious decline in Minnesota and elsewhere.  In future blogs, we will give you some suggestions on how we can help them.[2] 


[1] From The Bumblebee by Sarah K. Jenison, MI.  See

1 comment:

Zoe said...

I feel like I've spent my life being brainwashed to think that all mushrooms (except Morels) are POISONOUS, but now I'm starting to suspect that's not wholly the case, and I've ignored/destroyed pounds and pounds of forest delicacies over the decades. What's a fella to do? How do we reverse this ignominious trend and start to harvest some good eatin in the woods?