Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Plight of the Bumble Bee Part III: Not-So-Impossible Giants

In a speech in 2008, Mike Huckabee declared, “Aerodynamic engineers once figured out that… it is aerodynamically impossible for the bumble bee to fly. But the bumble bee, being unaware of these scientific facts, goes ahead and flies anyway.”

Creationists and other anti-science factions like to gleefully toss around this little tidbit. To them, this ridiculous notion underscores the folly of scientists, a useless, arrogant group that cannot prove anything of real value.

To these people, I will not mention vaccines, or computers, or electricity, or any of the other ways in which science has enriched their lives. I will not bring up the fact that while there are many phenomena unexplained by science, this doesn’t discredit the field, but rather gives job security to future scientists like myself. What I will say is that this idea that it is scientifically impossible for bumble bees to fly is, in fact, false. For some more details, here’s an article written by Cecil Adams, the self-described “world’s smartest human.”

During a 2010 trip to Punta Arenas, Chile, however, I caught sight of a bee so large that I had to admit its flight seemed an impossibility.

La Gigante Imposible (c) 2012 MRS

It’s a shame that there is no size reference in this photo. In the magical realm of memory, I seem to remember it being between the sizes of a jumbo gumballs and a table tennis ball. This bee, which, to the annoyance of my host, I kept referring to as “la abeja más grande que he visto,” is clearly a Bombus as evidenced by her large, fuzzy body; the wings folded across the back; and the smooth, flattened hind legs (or corbicula).

While I have not been able to ascertain the exact species of this bumble bee, from an informal communication I have learned that it is native to Chile. In recent years, populations these beautiful giants, as well as other bumble bees in North and South America, have been dwindling. Robbin Thorp, a bee expert from UC Davis, thinks that the main reason for these declines has to do with the use of domestic bumblee bee colonies to pollinate crops. Let’s hope that we will find ways to save these bumbling creatures so that they can continue their not-so-impossible flight for generations to come.

(c) 2012 MRS

Wait– domestic bumble bees, you say? Please tune in next week to hear about the practice of keeping bumble bees and how it might affect the natives.


The Plight of the Bumble Bee Part I: Getting Warmed Up

After a rainy week in not-so-sunny California, blue sky is finally starting to appear in the horizon, the temperature is rising, and the cherry, apple, and almond trees are blossoming. Just as different flowers bloom at different times during the season, different bees emerge at different times as well. Recently, as I was walking around my neighborhood, I was thrilled to see my first bumble bees (Bombus) of the season. Bumble bees use an ingenious mechanism to warm themselves up and get a head start over the competition.

I have not seen the documentary Life in the Undergrowth (narrated by David Attenborough, of course) in its entirety, but one of my professors played this clip in a class, and it has some lovely infrared footage of bumblebees getting warmed up for the day:

The next few posts that I write will focus on the unfortunate plight of native bumble bees in North and South America. Similarly to the honey bee, many native bee species have been experiencing recent population declines. In the case of the bumble bee, tomato farming practices may be the culprit.

The Male of the Species: The Dastardly Deeds of Male Bees

Melissodes, or longhorn bee, male resting on Plantago lanceolata. (c) 2011 MRS

Male insects engage in a variety of elaborate, sometimes touching, courtship behaviors to woo their mates. Some take females out to dinner first. Others perform elaborate dances or displays for the prospective mate.

Not so with bees. They pounce on their mate and, without much ado, engage in copulation. Here’s a quaint little description by Clarence Custer from a 1928 paper published in The Canadian Entomologist, back when such prose was considered suitable for scientific writing:

“Ceaselessy, the males … were darting back and forth. Occasionally, a female circled her way in from the fields, her hind legs bright yellow with their heavy loads of pollen. Then, almost inevitably, the males rushed in on all sides. There was a collision in mid-air and a sudden descent to the ground…”

Gripping, right?

Clearly, these bees are no gentlemen. An extreme case would be the Dawson’s bees in Australia, in which the male bees fight to the death for access to females. In case you missed it, here is some ultraviolent, high-def footage from the BBC documentary, Life, featuring our favorite nature documentary narrator: David Attenborough:

[I am pained to admit that unless I don’t know something about Dawson’s bees specifically, these male bees are not stinging each other to death as our beloved David Attenborough suggests. The bee stinger is a modified structure of the female reproductive system; therefore male bees cannot sting. If you happen to catch one, however, they can and will pretend to sting, and sometimes even pinch you with their external genitalia (rude, I know).]

Why else might males be considered ungentlemanly? Let us count the ways:

1. They Don’t Help Around the House
As I mentioned in my last post, male bees do not help at all with nest construction. This is why they are often visible sleeping in their bachelor pads.

2. They Don’t Bring Home the Bacon
Female bees spend much of their adult lives collecting pollen for their offspring. Since males do not provide for their young, they have no need to carry pollen with them. Therefore, they do not have pollen carrying structures, such as long hairs on the legs, that females have. If you see a large orange or yellow blob on the hind legs or bottom of the abdomen, you are probably looking at a hardworking female and not a barhopping male.

3. Their Straggly, Bearded Appearance

Males are, in general, smaller, longer, and narrower than females. Their antennae are also longer; an extreme example would be the longhorn bee. They are often described as having a rangy, scraggly-looking appearance.
In many cases, males have white faces, known as “beards,” that females lack. For more information, check out this informative post at Anna’s Bee World:

(c) 2009 Gary McDonald

So to illustrate, here are two photos of Melissodes bees, a male and a female.
This first photo on the right is a large, robust bee with short antennae and no beard. Also, please note the fabulous bright orange legwarmers, which are actually long hairs to which pollen is adhering.

This is clearly a female. Now let’s look at the next photo:

It's a Male!

Three strikes means this Melissodes, or longhorn bee, is most definitely a male. (c) 2012 MRS

Now that I’ve trashed the reputation of those ne’er-do-well male bees, maybe I should tell you that they’re certainly not the worse culprits in Insect World. Male bedbugs, for example, engage in “traumatic insemination” in which they puncture the bodies of females and inject sperm directly into their body cavity. And not all male bees have it easy, either. Take male honeybees, for example. Although attended from birth by their sisters, honeybee drones undergo “explosive ejaculation” during mating, which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. You can read more about the “sad plight of the drone bee” at

Previous Post

Anna's Bee World

In a previous post I had talked about how you can tell the difference between male and female bees. Yes, male and female bees look different from each other. There are certain physical characteristics that you can use to tell them apart.

One characteristic was a bee-rd (thanks Dennis!) or a bees version of facial hair. Bees that have hair on their clypeus are males. Here…I will show you what I mean.



Do you see the difference between the bees in the above photograph? They are the same species or type of bees, the Blue Orchard Bee (Osmia lignaria), only the males have tiny white beards. The females lack facial hair.

Another characteristic that can be used to tell males from females is size. With bees, the female is larger than the male. Even though males are smaller, they can still grab a female and…

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