Winter Dens at Lathrop

By Barbara Walvoord

Originally published in the Lathrop Lamp Post Feb. 3-9, 2018

We know that our Lathrop bears are hibernating in their cozy dens.  But also, in the ground, tiny dens hold hibernating bumblebee queens (Bombus sp.), who, along with hundreds of other native bee species, help pollinate our crops and our flowers.

These hibernating bumblebee queens were born last summer.  The old queen who produced the new queens is dead now, as are all her other children: the early-born female worker bees who helped her all summer, as well as all her male children, who didn’t help at all, but flew off in pursuit of one of those new queens.  After mating, the males all died. Only the new queen survived, carrying her eggs in her body, slumbering in her underground den, using up the body fat she gained last summer from gorging on nectar.  In spring, she’ll emerge and go looking for more nectar. When she’s gained enough strength, she’ll look for a nesting site in tussocky grass, a hole in the ground, a bird box, or a shed.

At the nesting site, she’ll build a mound out of pollen and wax secreted from her body. She’ll also use wax to build a cup-like structure in front of her mound, filling the cup with nectar–like putting a bottle of fruit smoothie on your nightstand so you don’t have to leave your bed.

She’ll lay her eggs on the mound and keep them warm for a few days by shivering her body, as she sips her nectar.  When the little grub-like larvae emerge, she’ll gather nectar and pollen for them from nearby flowers, until they spin a cocoon, inside which they develop into adults.  During this teenage development, they appear not to sass their parents, experiment with drugs, drive too fast, or have sex with each other.  As the grandmother of teenagers, I tend to think the cocoon is a fine plan by Mother Nature.

But Mother Nature takes a chance, here, when she kills off everybody each fall, except only these new queens to perpetuate the species over the winter.  When we Lathrop residents protect our native wildflowers and avoid poisoning the ground with chemicals, we help those precious queens who slumber now underground, their bodies holding the lives to come.

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