The Bee People  by Margaret Warner Morley


Red Clover

Bombus, the Bumble-Bee

A PIS MELLIFICA is not the only honey-bee in this country.

Indeed, she is not even a native of America, but was brought over from Europe more than two hundred years ago.

The bumble-bees, like the Indians, belong to America. They were here when Columbus discovered the New World.

There are a great many bumble-bees in different parts of the world, and more than sixty species in North America. The habits of them all are very much alike, however, so if we make the acquaintance of one, we shall know something of all.

The bumble-bees do not live in hives, and they do not store up honey in beautiful waxen combs.

Generally they have a nest in the ground, though sometimes they choose a woodpile, or other convenient place.

Bumble-bee nests are often found in haying time. When the grass is being cut the horses step on the nests, when out fly the angry bees and sting the horses and the men and boys.

Sometimes there are so many bees' nests in a meadow that it is difficult to get the hay.

Madam Bombus makes her nest in a hollow in the ground under a tuft of grass, and it is so near the surface that one could easily dig it out with the fingers, if it were not for Madam Bombus herself.

Put your fingers into her nest and see what she will do.

She will sting you on the nose for one thing. She seems fond of stinging people on the nose.

Queen Bombus does not have a whole hive full of workers to help her when she starts her nest.

On the contrary, the workers and drones die in the fall, and the queen is left all alone. She crawls into some snug corner and sleeps through the winter. When spring comes she wakes up, stretches herself, smells the early flowers, feels the warm sun, and away she flies. She first goes in search of a home.

You can see her in the springtime flying about, hunting carefully for a good place to make her nest.

When she has found a home that suits her, she goes to the flowers and gathers pollen.

From morning until night she works as hard as she can tugging large balls of pollen to her hole in the ground.

What do you think she does with it? She has no waxen cells to store it away in, so she just piles it together in her nest.

In this mass of pollen she lays her eggs. She always lays fertilized eggs early in the season; but I suppose she does not feed the young bees very generously on bee-milk, so they hatch into workers instead of queens.

Of course this is just what she wants. As soon as the workers begin to come out, she can stay at home and let them gather the pollen.

The bombus is covered all over with hair, as you know, and has bands of yellow and black hairs across her body.


My Bombus

The bombus that I know best has a yellow jacket, and a broad yellow band across the top of her abdomen.

The tail-end of her abdomen is black. She is a very pretty, furry bee, and like all the bombuses, her wings are dark brown in color.

The honey-bee's wings are as clear as glass, and that is one way you can tell a honey-bee from a bumble-bee.

Well, Madam Bombus lays her eggs in the mass of pollen, and they hatch into little larvæ, like those of the honey-bees, only not so small.

You see, Madam Bombus has to do all the work herself; so, I suppose it saves trouble to have the infants cradled in good pollen, so they can help themselves without troubling their mother. She feeds them on bee-milk at first; but later, I suspect, they have to eat their cradles.

They grow fast; no doubt they eat a great deal of pollen.

When it comes time for them to change into pupæ, what do you suppose happens? I do not believe you could guess if you tried a month.

You see, they have no wax cells in which they can be bottled up.

Queen Bombus does not cap them over, as the honey-bees do, and leave them to their fate. She cannot bottle up her babies, because she has no bottles.

I shall have to tell you the secret.

They bottle themselves up! You remember how the Apis baby, in its pretty waxen cell, spun a silk nightcap when it was capped over? Baby Bombus spins a whole nightgown.

She eats a hole in the pollen about her, large enough to lie in comfortably, then she begins to spin, and does not stop until she has made for herself a yellow cocoon. It looks a little like the cocoon of a silkworm, only it is much darker in color, and the lower part is embedded in pollen. The upper part is sometimes quite clean and pretty.

I looked into the nest of the bombus with a yellow jacket and a yellow band across the upper end of her abdomen, and this is what I saw. Just a pile of cocoons, you see. In each cocoon is a bee-baby.


The larva lies curled up in its cocoon with its head bent over, as you can see in this next picture.

But in a few days it changes into a pupa. The young pupa is very pretty and it deserves its name. You know pupa  means doll; and if the pupa, when first formed, does not look like a bee-doll, I do not know what it does look like.


I will try to draw you some pictures of these pupæ, though no pictures can do them justice. They are as white as snow, and sometimes have pink eyes, though sometimes their eyes are blue. They look as if they had been very beautifully carved from white ivory. You can see their little buds of wings held close to their sides, and their long white tongues down in front, and their pretty snow-white legs cuddled up close to their bodies, so as not to take up too much room.


Honey-bee pupæ are as pretty as these, but they are smaller and not so easily seen.

Soon these pretty white "dolls" become darker in color, and soft hairs begin to appear. Then their wings enlarge, the down has covered their bodies, their legs are strong and black, they are no longer "dolls," but are perfect bees and are ready to come out.

All they have to do, is bite a hole in the end of their cocoons, and step out. They are damp at first, and their hairs cling to their bodies; but soon they are dry and fuzzy and as handsome as young bees ought to be.

When the bees first come out, their jackets and the upper part of their abdomens are white instead of yellow.

I suppose they are tow-headed in infancy, like some other young people you and I know. But their white, baby hairs soon turn to a bright canary yellow, and in two or three days they would probably sting you if you called them "babies."

The worker-bees are only half as large as the queens, though they vary a good deal in size. Sometimes the eggs laid in corners, or under the large cocoons, hatch into poor little larvæ, that have no chance to grow. So they make tiny little cocoons, and hatch out into funny little bits of bumble-bees. Sometimes these little dwarfs are no larger than honey-bees. But, I can tell you, they feel as big as anybody. They buzz about and gather pollen and honey like the other bees.


A Dwarf

Late in the summer Queen Bombus lays fertilized eggs that make queens. I suppose the larvæ are fed on all the bee-milk they want, and so become queens instead of workers. Queen Bombus, also, toward the end of the summer lays unfertilized eggs, and of course these hatch into drones.

Bumble-bee queens do not kill each other, and the bumble-bees do not kill their drones.

After the queens and drones are hatched, they mate high in the air, and the queen stores away the pollen of the drone until next spring.

When the cold weather comes, the drones and workers die, and the queen hides away.

Some bumble-bees store up honey in the empty cocoons after the young bees have left them, but you can imagine it is not very good honey. Some bumble-bees make wax and use it to finish out the cocoons into better cells, or even to make a few coarse cells, or to mat together the grass over the nest to keep the rain out. But my bumble-bees had no wax at all in their nest, and at the time I saw it they had not stored away any honey.

The Bombus family is very small compared to the Apis family, for sometimes there will be only a dozen bees in a nest, again there will be several dozen.

Bumble-bees are very good play-fellows. If you want to have a good time watching the bees, catch one or two large bumble- bees in a net and let them loose on the window. They will not sting you unless you touch them. Even if they get on you, if you keep perfectly still they will leave without hurting you.

You can give your pet bombus a drop of honey, or a little sugar and water, and see its long brown tongue lick it up.

If you want to see it perform its toilet, you can breathe upon it gently.

This makes it very angry, and it will buzz with its wings for a moment, then go to work to clean itself all over.

Bumble-bees have a funny way of sticking out their legs at you, as if they meant to strike you. When you come near one, out fly its legs in quite a threatening manner.


Honey-bees do this too, but not so much as bumble-bees.

The very best place to watch bees is in the fields.

If you sit down near a nice patch of red clover, you will be very sure to meet a bombus before long.

She will not disturb you, and you can get as close to her as you please, so long as you do not touch her. You can watch her put her tongue into the little clover tubes. She is very fond of red clover, and she can get its honey, but the honey-bee cannot, because the clover tube is too long for Miss Apis's tongue. The red clover depends upon the bumble-bee for fertilization, and an interesting story is told of how clover was introduced into Australia.

There was no red clover in Australia until the white settlers took the seed there and sowed it. Then the clover grew, but bore no seed, so of course it did not amount to much. People said, what is the matter with the clover; why will it not go to seed?

I wonder if you could have told them? Finally somebody told of the relation between the bumble-bees and the clover, and said the clover needed the bees,—for there were no bumble-bees in Australia. So some nest of bumble-bees were taken to Australia, and the clover then bore seeds.

I once had a bumble-bee that did not know how to get nectar from red clover.

It was hatched in my room, and fed on sugar and water for several days.

Then it was given some clover, but it seemed to be too old to learn. It wanted the nectar, for evidently it smelled it, and tried to get it, but it could not find the openings into the flower tubes.


It was very funny to see poor Miss Bombus run her tongue along the outside  of the little flowers that make up the clover head. She found the opening to one or two of them finally, but she never became an expert at gathering clover nectar. You see, she began to practise too late in life.

You will sometimes see bumble-bees asleep on the flowers toward night. Perhaps they have wandered too far from home; perhaps they think flower petals make a very dainty bedroom. Often the bees kept in a room will take a nap on a cloudy day.


You can tell when a bee is asleep, because it looks  as if it were asleep.

It does not shut its eyes, of course, but it looks very droopy and sleepy.

Look at that bee on the iris bud; wouldn't you know  it had gone to sleep?

You can get a great deal of pleasure from the bees by watching them out of doors. You can see them go into different kinds of flowers and find out just how they take the nectar.

Bees never sting unless you go too near their hives or else touch them. You can watch the bees out of doors and in your room as much as you please without the slightest danger.

You can keep bees in the house and feed them on different kinds of flowers. They have to learn how to get the nectar from a new kind of flower. They will try and try until they have found the right opening.

When once they have learned their way into a flower, they can usually go at once to the nectar in another flower of the same kind.

You see, they experiment until they find out what to do, and then they remember.