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Big Buzzer

Bumble bees may look menacing, but they're gentle giants.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Even the slightest sound of a bzzzzzt! sends most folks running for cover.

Heaven forbid they stop for a closer look at what's making the racket: a fat, fuzzy bumble bee (Bombus sp.) banded with black and yellow stripes.

A bumble bee's life cycle begins with a fertilized queen, who overwinters underground. In early spring, she emerges and searches for a suitable nest, typically an abandoned mouse nest, hollow log or clump of grass. Eggs are laid and the resulting larvae feed within a "brood clump," a mass of pollen and nectar surrounded by wax. The young mature into female worker bees that tend the brood and forage for nectar and pollen.

In late summer, the colony produces new queens and drones (male bees tasked only with mating). After mating, the young queens leave the nest and find places to overwinter, leaving the old queen and workers to die.

People sometimes confuse bumble bees with carpenter bees, some of which have metallic blue or green abdomens and tunnel into wood to build their nests. Female carpenter bees are docile by nature but can sting. Likewise, female bumble bees pose little threat when flitting flower to flower but can turn aggressive when defending a nest (males cannot sting). Unlike honey bees (which lose their barbed stingers after one attack and die), bumble bees can sting repeatedly and survive.

Those mean stings coupled with an angry bzzzt! may scare humans but not skunks. They consider bumble bees to be a tasty delicacy.

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