I love male bumblebees. They are quite conspicuous because of their fuzzy yellow noses. In Ontario where I live, you usually don’t see them until late summer.
In a bumblebee colony, all of the worker bees are female. The male bumblebees hang around the nest until they are mature, then they leave the nest forever in search of a queen bumblebee with which to mate. Once a male bumblebee mates with a queen, he dies.
Rough life, eh?
Male bumblebees also don’t sting!
In order to survive outside of the nest until they find a mate, male bumblebees do have to find food (nectar). So they have to be able to find flowers. While visiting flowers they can also act as pollinators, just like female bumblebees.
When I worked with bumblebees during my graduate student years I often wondered whether male bumblebees have similar colour preferences and learning abilities as females.
It makes sense that female bumblebees would be able to learn quickly which flowers offer food, because they have a whole nest of 100-200 bumblebees to feed! But male bumblebees only need to feed themselves…would their foraging skills be as fine-tuned?
I came across a recent paper that compared male bumblebees and female worker bumblebees in terms of whether they could learn which artificial flowers offered nectar and which flowers did not. So, for example, yellow flowers might provide nectar whereas blue flowers just offered water (bumblebees don’t drink water). The researchers observed whether male and female bumblebees learned to land and feed from the yellow flowers while avoiding the blue flowers.
Turns out the male bumblebees were just as capable as the female bumblebees in figuring out which flowers offered food, and which ones did not. Hooray, boys!
Thinking about it, it makes sense. Male bumblebees expend a lot of energy flying around, looking for queen bees with which to mate. It makes sense that like females, they should be efficient in finding food, otherwise they would expend even MORE energy landing on things in a trial-and-error fashion. One way to be efficient in finding food is learning where to get it, and learning this FAST.
In a previous post, The Zen of Bees, I wrote about labelling bees. Here is a picture of bee labels that you can buy off of ebay. You punch out the labels and glue them onto the bee’s back (thorax) with special non-toxic glue. Then you can refer to bees by their colour and number, like Red 9, Green 50, or Blue 11.