Scoping Out the Buzz

The flower garden at Farmstead is completely abuzz. Hummingbirds dart from feeders to flowers, butterflies of all shapes and colors flit joyfully, and bees by the droves rumble and bumble from bloom to bloom. The little floral oasis we’ve created here at the farm is in full bloom, and Mother Nature’s pollinators are ecstatic.

The monarda (bee balm) is hands-down the favorite, followed by the purple oregano blooms, butterfly weed (in the milkweed family with bright orange blossoms), hydrangea, holly hock, wild mint, and lilies. The canopied order pickup space in front of Farmstead Creamery becomes a thoroughfare between the north and south flower beds. Hummingbirds playfully chase each other, sometimes whizzing right past my face!

Lately, many folks stopping by to pick up their order or enjoy some curbside gelato are amazed by the amount of joyful life in these gardens, whipping out cameras to catch a few pics before heading on their way. Jan, one of our weekly CSA members, has been especially enjoying watching the pollinator team flourish and multiply.

“I should come out and do a bumble bee survey,” she offered. “We can find out which and how many species you have here.”

“That sounds fun!” I replied, and we set a date for a social distanced survey.

The survey is through the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade, a citizen-led initiative that works with the DNR to track wild native bees in Wisconsin and assess their distribution and populations. All over the country, bees are in decline, but often little is known about native pollinators as compared with the data available about honeybee colonies. These volunteer surveys pool together to help document which bees are where and identify trends or habitat need.

Clipboard and camera in hand, Jan arrived on a sunny morning, ready for action. I was the bumble bee assistant, on the lookout for what might be different species that she should document.

“Yellow thorax, no black spot!” I cried from one corner, pointing at the individual in question. They are not always easy to keep track of as they bob from flower to flower amidst all their fuzzy companions.

“Ooh, that might be Perplexus!” Jan trotted over, camera ready. “You have a real eagle eye for this.”

Some of the bees were happy to be photogenic, like the chubby Borealis, while others were shy and often wanted to buzz away as we drew near. Sometimes my role was to hold a flower steady, while at other times I was directing bumble bee traffic towards Jan so she could have a better look.

“I really appreciate how you’re not afraid of the bees,” Jan offered as we bent over a monarda for a better look at a half black bumble bee. “That really helps.”

“Well, I’m a former beekeeper,” I reminded. “The only time I was ever afraid of real bees (wasps and hornets are another story) was a year that my colony came with Africanized genes.”

“Oh dear!” Jan winced.

“You couldn’t even mow the lawn without wearing a bee suit, they were that pissy!”

Bumble bees, on the other hand, are gentle giants of the bee world. When they are busy out harvesting nectar and pollen and don’t feel threatened, they have no interest in stinging you. For bees, stinging ends their life (unlike hornets or wasps), so this is reserved for defending the queen and colony or in self defense if they are being squished.

As long as the bees know that they have an easy way out, they are completely docile. I was able to gently pet their soft backs, feel their tiny claws as they climbed on my fingers, and carefully nudge them towards Jan. Bees are very sensitive to your emotions (communicated through pheromones, which is an important way they communicate with each other), and if you are calm and kind, they respond accordingly. If you are anxious and afraid, they know this too. The bees are just being themselves, but you can choose how you want to be amongst them.

“Ooh, here’s an orange one!” The rusty stripe of a tri-color whizzes by. Usually, we have a host of these, but we haven’t seen so many this year. Jan noted that this has been a trend across the state, possibly related to our odd spring and the drought.

Pending the official return and double-check of the survey, we found seven species of bumble bees in the garden:

Tricolored BB (Bombus ternarius)
Brownbelted BB (B. griseocollis)
Norther Amber BB (B. borealis)—uncommon
Confusing BB (B. perplexus)
Half-black BB (B. vagans),
Yellow-banded BB (B. terricola)—uncommon
Common Eastern BB (B.impatiens)

Jan had a handy identification chart that we used during the process, noting very subtle differences in color and patterning. She was excited by how many species we found and how plentiful they were on the farm. “You have a wonderful ecosystem here, keep it up!”

Who is buzzing in your backyard? You too can use the chart and take a look. Time to refill the hummingbird feeders and admire our happy wild bees. See you down on the farm sometime.