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Bumble Bees...

Fat, furry slow fliers that really should not (fly that is), just love delphiniums.
by Terry Dowdeswell
January 1, 2000

Right now, with temperatures in New Zealand beginning to ease and the nights becoming cool, there is often heavy dew on cold surfaces such as leaves and flowers in the early morning. Sometimes, at this time of year when the last of the summer de-anthering work is in progress I am reminded of the humble Bumble Bee. Not that they actually mean any harm. They rarely alight on young delphinium flowers before the pollen is ripe and avoid them entirely once the anthers and delphinium "bee" (that fine furry brown, white or black Bombus imposter) have been removed; and it's not their fault they are so slow in the cool mornings. After all, I'm a bit slow too.

Well I was a bit slow before. Before, thoughts far away contemplating the unlikely possibility of an exciting moment in the NZ v Australia cricket test (, I absent-mindedly reached out to brush a delphinium spike aside and rather imprudently invaded the said humble bumble's space. Actually the invasion was only a wee sortie really. I only squashed her a little bit. Poor thing, cold, wet and obviously suffering from a hangover after being out on the town all night she, quite naturally, stung me and I too, quite naturally said "Aha! I've been stung!"

Well, that just serves me right for taking Bumble Bees for granted. A few years ago, when Janice and I were growing delphiniums for the cut flower trade we quickly got to know to wear cotton gloves as the weather cooled down and then, should we accidentally squeeze a bee, the sting rarely penetrated far enough to cause much bother. Squeezing the bee (there must be a saying in there somewhere, something like grasping the nettle) as I did yesterday prompted me to think what a good job these wee creatures do for us and how little I know about them.

Bumble Bees are quite different to Honey Bees in that their nests die out each year, being replaced by over wintered queens who complete a new life cycle. There are many other differences:

Bumble Bees never swarm; so you wont have the embarrassment of thousands of bees settling in the bar-b-q chimney on the afternoon before your daughter's outdoor summer wedding and being flushed out among the gathered throng during preparations for dinner. This is of course very common and the precursor of many a fight with the new mother-in-law, should the proceedings ever be completed.

Bumble Bees are extremely good pollinators and are now used widely in the production of greenhouse tomatoes and peppers, (among other things) the magnificent skills of the bee being responsible for the excellent fruit set necessary to produce full, well shaped fruit. This function is aided by the kind, gentle nature of the (un squeezed) bee who is always most kind to Homo sapiens and never attacks unless severely provoked. Would that man were so considerate.

Of course, having such efficient pollinators around is a double-edged sword because, lets face it, they sometimes get it wrong. If I have a lovely paddock (field) of pink delphiniums that I may want to allow to self-pollinate I don't want some do-gooder buzzing fur ball coming along from the neighbour's paddock of blue delphiniums and messing things up do I? It is therefore prudent to leave several miles (about 7 for honey bees anyway) between varieties and spray any neighbour's flowers with weed killer. Not good for neighbourly relations I hear you say? Too right it's not, and dangerous too as I only stand about knee high to a grasshopper and have biceps to match. That's why we pollinate inside a growing house with insect cloth around to prevent unnecessary promiscuity (you can debate necessary promiscuity yourselves).

Despite being so kind, friendly and socially responsible, Bumble Bees have enemies. You! Well, not you exactly but definitely man in general and specifically those of our brothers who spray insecticides about the place with as much concern for the welfare of others as a drug addicted, hungry despot with an empty bank account so please, be careful and, I almost forgot - watch where you put your busy fingers when you are pollinating delphiniums!

For more information about Bumble Bees see: (commercial site) Terry Dowdeswell 1570 Brunswick Road RD1 Wanganui New Zealand Email:

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