Enjoy those huckleberries? Thank a wild bumblebee

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A bumblebee lands on an aster flower in Glacier Park.

The next time you grab a handful of huckleberries, you just might want to thank the bees — bumblebees that is. Research by Montana State University and the U.S. Geological Survey has found that there’s about six species of bumblebee and one Andrenidae species of bee that pollinate Montana’s huckleberry bushes.

Prior to 2014, researchers weren’t sure what insects exactly were pollinating the iconic bush, USGS scientist Tabitha Graves said during a talk last week at the Flathead Chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society.

The bees are critical to berry production. Experiments in the field have shown that bushes that are isolated from bees make a fraction of the fruit compared to plants that are pollinated by their fuzzy friends.

And bumblebees are very fuzzy — it’s one of their trademarks, Graves noted. Bumblebees also have sticky sacks on their hind legs to carry pollen back to their nests. Of the 28 species of bumblebees in Montana, 22 are found in the Flathead, researcher Amy Dolan found.

Most bumblebees nest in the ground. The female awakes in the spring, flies around and gathers pollen from newly-blooming flowers while looking for a place to start its nest and raise young. They can range as far as 5 miles from their nest site, research has found.

According to a U.S. Forest Service bumbleebee field guide, once the queen finds a suitable site, she will begin preparing the nest space by building a small wax cup, called a honey pot, and collects pollen which she will use to feed her developing brood. When the nest is sufficiently provisioned, she will lay eggs on the pollen lump and begin incubating the eggs by laying her abdomen over the brood to keep the eggs or larvae warm. At this point the queen remains in the nest unless she needs to collect more food. Nearly four weeks after laying the first eggs, her first workers will emerge as adults and begin the jobs of foraging, nest cleaning, and brood care. The colony will grow throughout the summer and the workers will help the queen produce a clutch of male offspring, followed soon by new queen bees. These reproductive bees will leave the nest and find mates. After mating, the males die and the queens feed briefly before digging their individual spaces called hibernacula and become dormant for the winter.

It’s the queen flying around in the spring that does most of the huckleberry pollinating, Graves noted.

A subspecies, called the cuckoo bumblebee, is parasitic and lays its eggs in existing bumblebee nests. The bees then raise the cuckoo bees. Cuckoo bees are also pollinators, however.

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees are native species. They’re hard to raise in captivity because they nest in the ground. Some species, like the western bumblebee are in decline.

Further research planned for this year and next will hope to find answers as to why, Graves noted.

Folks can get involved in bumblebee research on their own — a web site called bumblebeewatch.org has a citizen science program designed to track the bumblebee.

Free field guides are also downloadable off the web at https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/documents/BumbleBeeGuideWestern2012.pdf

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