What a beautiful evening to go rescue some baby bumble bees! As I wait at this bus stop on Main Street, I'm thinking about what a fun mission my friend Sarah Johnson and I have taken on: relocating a bumble nest from an apartment balcony and moving them to our back yard. The owner of the balcony put out a call for help on Instagram. She had opened up a piece of sod rolled up in a plastic tarp and found some buzzing critters. From the photo, I could tell that a bumble bee queen had made her nest in the cavity formed inside the sod and there were already a small group of female worker bees busy gathering pollen to feed to their baby sisters. How exciting!
Sarah and I put our heads together and came up with a plan. She suggested we move the bees at night because all the workers are home asleep, so no one would get lost because they were out foraging. Alexandria Farmer (a bumble bee nesting specialist who currently works at Mount Royal University as a senior lab instructor) had advised her to bring a big Rubbermaid container and some duct tape. I rounded up a couple of beekeeping suits, so we wouldn't get stung. I asked "M" if I could come earlier in the afternoon to photograph the bees. She graciously gave me permission to access to the balcony. With "M" and her wee dog safely behind the door, I gingerly unwrapped the tarp and saw a lovely little nest of Bombus mixtus bees. As you can see, they are tending the wax pots where the queen lays her eggs and the workers feed the larvae pollen. They are also making a wax roof over the cavity for extra protection. One worker was digging, perhaps to make the cavity a bit larger. Bumblebee nests can only grow as large as the cavity the queen has chosen to nest in. (This is why they don't tend to last to long if they nest in small bird houses. They simply outgrow the space.)
I took several photographs and then two of the bees suddenly flew up at me. I brushed them off, but they did not sting. Still, I got the message, so I closed up the tarp and headed back inside.
I had imagined we would need to cut the bees out of the larger piece of sod to put it in a wooden bumble bee nesting box, but Sarah suggested a much simpler solution. I went home to fetch the bee suits and returned after sunset to meet Sarah at "M"'s house. And here we are, dressed in our gear.
As you can see, the appropriate footwear is very important in these situations!
Sarah took a look at the size of the turf and suggested we simply lift it into the plastic container. On the count of three we heaved it into the box. It was very awkward and heavy, but no bees flew out at all, so the nests Sarah brought were not needed, and the bee suits were total overkill. Bombus mixtus are known for their gentle temperament. Sarah taped up the container, and we barely even heard a buzz coming from the nest.
We carried the box to the truck of Sarah's car and bid adieu to "M" who can now enjoy her balcony with her pup and not worry about getting stung or disturbing the flight path of the bees.
We asked "M" what name we should give to the bumblebees. She is a fan of the mystic and herbalist Hildegard von Bingen, so we have named them the Bingen Bumbles. Here's one of the workers gathering pollen from the black raspberry flowers. I checked on the nest and the workers have continued to make the little wax roof. I'm so happy we could adopt this lovely nest! And we'll have more berries than ever this summer!!!!
Sarah Johnson is working on a PHD studying bumble bees in British Columbia at Simon Fraser University. You can follower her adventures on Instagram @manysarahs. She's also got a fantastic Twitter feed @manysarahs . You can also follow my adventures and misadventures on Instagram @beespeaker.
If you listened to my interview on North by Northwest on CBC radio, I mentioned some great plants to grow for PNW native bees: salal, kinnikinnik, Oregon grape, nodding onion, chives, garlic chives, anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and Persion cat mint (Nepeta cultivars). For more info on plants for bees check out my book Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees.
I’ll be giving a talk for Salmonberry Days on Tuesday, May 28 at 7:30 pm at the Dunbar Community Centre in Vancouver (4747 Dunbar Street). There’s a $5 drop-in fee for those people who aren’t members of the Dunbar Garden Club and I’ll have some books on hand for sale for $25 (cash only). Please spread the word and check out the other awesome events at the festival!