It is finally spring in Wisconsin, and the nesting trial hoop house at Arlington Agricultural Research Station is now home to spring bumble bee queens! Many thanks to the staff at Arlington (Gerry, Jeff, and Shannon), as well as my intrepid fellow grad students (Erin, Jade, and Alden) for their invaluable help in setting up the hoop houses, burying the nests under ground, and catching mama bees. Above, see the crew after installing a mesh cover over the hoop house skeleton to keep the bees inside, and my reaction to having successfully captured a queen bee using the lab's bee vacuum. Now that the first batch of queens has been released into the hoop house, I'll be busy feeding them and monitoring whether any have established colonies in the milk jug nests.
Bumble bees (genus Bombus) are some of the most recognizable and charismatic insects around Madison. However, while industrious worker bees are a familiar sight on spring flowers, little is known about the nests they return to at the end of every day. This is because many bumble bees nest below ground, where their lives unfold entirely out of sight from curious ecologists. As understanding bumble bee nesting behavior is key to developing effective pollinator protection plans, I am investigating the nesting preferences of local bumble bees this spring and summer. Within large hoop houses at UW-Madison’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station, spring bumble bee queens will be allowed to choose from an array of possible nests, and I will monitor their choices throughout May and June. My aims are to identify whether queen bumble bees prefer to nest in burrows previously occupied by other bees, and to create a working protocol for researchers to use towards their own bumble bee nesting questions in the future.
In an effort to use as many reclaimed materials as possible, I am constructing 200 nest boxes out of used plastic milk cartons. Community members all over Madison have responded to the call, and my back porch is swimming in cartons! Over the next few weeks I'll be racing the clock to cut ventilation windows and stuff each box with straw bedding and kapok insulation. Lots of work to do before the first queen bees come out of hibernation...
On Saturday, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center hosted a table at the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery to teach children about grassland ecosystems and the pollinators who call them home. I had fun giving kids a peek into bumble bee colonies and helping families learn about prairie plants!