Cascadian Farm
It's Spring Time and the Bumble Bees are Buzzing
Ashley Minnerath - Site Director

 

The distinct smell and feel of spring is in the air at Cascadian Farm’s Home Farm in northern Washington. We’ve had a few days of sun and 60 degree temperatures encouraging native plum, snowberry, salmon berry, and other early spring plants to leaf out.

Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)in bloom. One of the first deciduous native shrubs to flower in late winter in the Pacific Northwest. It is an important nectar source for emerging bumble bee queens and other pollinators.

These early spring days also bring out some of the first bumble bees of the season in the Pacific Northwest. You’re likely to hear the distinct buzz of their powerful wings before your eyes catch up to them. Once you do catch sight, you’ll notice them flying close to the ground in methodical circles or flying by quickly overhead. These queens are on the hunt for the best place to establish a nest and start a colony. They are looking for a dry cavity, such as in an old rodent burrow, a tree cavity, under tuffs of grass, or sometimes in unfortunate, human-made places – such as in siding on your house, bird houses, or even in an upside down flower pot.  

Salmon berry (Rubus spectabilis) in bloom.

Once the bumble bee queen finds an ideal location, she’ll start laying eggs and foraging for nectar and pollen to feed her young. The first female workers to emerge will take on the work of foraging and expanding the nest while the queen stays inside laying eggs. This is a critical time of year for bumble bee colonies. They are only successful if there are adequate floral resources in the surrounding landscape. 

Snow berry leafing out (Symphoricarpos albus)

Being large and fuzzy, bumble bees are one of the easiest bee families to recognize.  They’re often referred to as the teddy bears of the pollinator world. Bumble bees are a group of very important pollinators for blueberries and other new world crops. Crops that evolved and were domesticated in the Americas are considered to be new world crops – think cranberries, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. Low bush blueberries are native to the pine barrens of Maine. Bumble bees and blueberries have evolved together over thousands of years, creating an intimate pollination relationship.

Patriot blueberries at the home farm. 

Here, at Cascadian Farm’s home farm, we grow 11 acres of highbush blueberries. Highbush blueberries are a cultivar of the native low bush cousins. Some varieties are self-fertile, but produce bigger fruit when cross pollinated. For the past two growing seasons, we have relied exclusively on native pollinators to ensure pollination of our blueberries (versus renting honey bee hives to be brought to the farm). Depending on the variety and weather conditions, our blueberries bloom between late March and early May. Bumble bees are especially important pollinators during this time of year because of their ability to regulate their body temperature. This ability allows them to pollinate during wet and cool conditions – conditions that are the epitome of spring time in the Pacific Northwest.

 

Patriot blueberries at the home farm. 

Although bumble bees are important pollinators of so many crops and native plants, there is still a lot that scientists need to learn about their population trends and nesting habits. Bumble Bee Watch is a fantastic citizen science program that allows anyone to participate in helping scientists conserve bumble bees. Simply snap a picture of a bumble bee, upload it to BumbleBeeWatch.org, and follow their easy-to-use identification tool. The photo will then be verified by a bumble bee expert and helps to track data on bumble bee species, distribution, and nesting habits. 

Yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) queen visiting a marionberry blossom. Photo by: Eric Lee-Mäder. 

This is one small way you can help conserve these important insects. Another way is to redeem the code on your package of Cascadian Farm products. For every code entered online by December 31, 2018, Cascadian Farm will donate $0.25 to the Xerces Society for habitat restoration or to the University of Minnesota Bee Lab for research into honey bee health.  Maximum total donation of $1,000,000 based upon online code entry and other consumer actions.  Learn more at Bee-Friendlier.com.  In next month’s blog, we’ll talk about other ways to help pollinators and our journey to protect and enhance pollinator habitat at Cascadian Farm’s Home Farm.

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