Watch your step, you may miss some learning

Watch your step, you may miss some learning

The asphalt parking lot of a local drug store is not typically the place where one would go to encounter wildlife. But as I’ve written many times, if you keep your eyes open and aware you just never know when nature is going leap out and offer you an opportunity to learn.

As a lifelong watcher of the sky I’ve often been accused by my wife of leading myself into peril at ground level. If I had a dollar for every time Kristin’s told me to watch where I’m going, I could probably hire a personal navigator to lead me around so I could spend all my time looking up. Sure, I’ve stumbled into some dubious situations, but I’ve also spotted a lot of cool things aloft over the years.

This fixation with the sky makes it all the more unusual that I would spot a couple of mating bumblebees on the pavement directly under what would have been my very next step. I nearly did a flip over the pair as I pulled my foot away at the last second.

Although I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the incidental presence of bumblebees, I’d never encountered this circumstance. I took a moment to snap a photo, then gently nudged the two out of the main traffic corridor to a spot less likely to see them both meet their end under foot or tire. Duly inspired by the chance encounter, I went home to research what I’d seen.

While bumblebees are social insects that live together in small colonies, they do not go to the extreme efforts of honeybees to ensure that a number of their population makes it through the winter. Instead, the bumblebee colony places the entire fate of the next generation on the shoulders of a virgin queen that emerges in late summer from the nest (typically a tree stump, rock outcrop or simple hole in the ground) to find a mate.

Males of the species have already prepared a plan for luring the queen to within their reach as they’ve plotted out various “picnic spots” nearby, marking them with pheromones that act as an attractant to the new queen. When she stops for a visit, the male makes his move, and in what is typical of many insect species, the more successful he is in mating, the more likely it is that it’ll be his very last act.

What I encountered in the parking lot appeared to be just such a success. The pair were solidly conjoined, and for a male bumblebee that’s a one-way ticket to the great beyond, as the endgame will see the queen flying off with important parts of the male still attached. The thinking half of the male remains on the ground to ponder the seeming inequity of the whole encounter as his life slowly drains away.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bumblebee heads off on an eating binge to fortify her body against the winter ahead, gathering as much pollen and nectar as possible to build fat stores within her body. Finally, she seeks out a hibernation site that will remain cool, dry and undetected until a point months later the earth warms and blossoms become available once again for nutrition.

In the spring the new queen forges a new colony by depositing just a dozen or so eggs, fertilized the previous fall by her doomed suitor, into a honeycomb that she has created from her own secretions. Thus the tale begins anew.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world please write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627 or email John at You can also follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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