Bumble bees form colonies. These colonies are usually much less extensive than those of honey bees. This is due to a number of factors including the small physical size of the nest cavity, the responsibility of a single female for the initial construction and reproduction that happens within the nest, and the restriction of the colony to a single season (in most species). Often, mature bumble bee nests will hold fewer than 50 individuals. Bumble bee nests may be found within tunnels in the ground made by other animals, or in tussock grass. Bumble bees sometimes construct a wax canopy (“involucrum”) over the top of their nest for protection and insulation. Bumble bees do not often preserve their nests through the winter, though some tropical species live in their nests for several years (and their colonies can grow quite large, depending on the size of the nest cavity). In temperate species, the last generation of summer includes a number of queens who overwinter separately in protected spots. The queens can live up to one year, possibly longer in tropical species.
Bumble bee nests are first constructed by over-wintered queens in the spring (in temperate areas). Upon emerging from hibernation, the queen collects pollen and nectar from flowers and searches for a suitable nest site. The characteristics of the nest site vary among bumble bee species, with some species preferring to nest in underground holes and others in tussock grass or directly on the ground. Once the queen has found a site, she prepares wax pots to store food, and wax cells into which eggs are laid. These eggs then hatch into larvae, which cause the wax cells to expand isometrically into a clump of brood cells.
These larvae need to be fed both nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein in order to develop. Bumble bees feed nectar to the larvae by chewing a small hole in the brood cell into which nectar is regurgitated. Larvae are fed pollen in one of two ways, depending on the bumble bee species. So called “pocket-maker” bumble bees create pockets of pollen at the base of the brood cell clump from which the larvae can feed themselves. Conversely, “pollen-storers” store pollen in separate wax pots and feed it to the larvae in the same fashion as nectar. Bumble bees are incapable of trophallaxis (direct transfer of food from one bee to another).
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