Guest Blog

Bumblebee Queens go House Hunting

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Bombus lapidarius

Bombus lapidarius by Richard Lewington

In this guest blog, Laura Smith from discusses one of the most frequent enquiries put to her by her followers.

Bumblebee queens are emerging from their winter hibernation. The first thing they need after their long sleep is a good meal, and that means nectar and pollen from flowers. To get to the flower the queen has to fly, but to fly she must get her flight muscles up to 30 C regardless of the air temperature. She raises her body temperature above the ambient temperature by shivering and pumping her abdomen, so you see bumblebees aren't really cold blooded at all!

This is also the time when bumblebee queens are found in the strangest places. You can see them flying close to the ground ignoring the flowers and investigating every dark crack and crevice. They are just searching for a good place to nest. Here at we get masses of emails from people who have found queens in pockets of jackets, in rotary lawnmowers that have been left over winter uncleaned, we even had an email last week from someone who found a bumblebee queen sharing his duvet! Abandoned mouse and vole nests are still their favourite nesting places, though.

Commercial bumblebee nest boxes are expensive and have a low success rate leading to great disappointment. However, take heart, even professional scientists have a low success rate when it comes to bumblebee nest box occupancy - sometimes fewer than 10% of boxes will be occupied. So what can be done increase your success? Well there are a few basic things to check first.

  1. Get the right size of box for your species of bumblebee. Above ground nesters tend to have smaller nests, and ground and below ground nesters tend to have larger nests.
  2. Place the box in, on or above ground according to the bumblebees you have in your garden.
  3. Make sure you have suitable nest material. The very best is an old mouse or vole nest, then a bird nest, but failing that the natural stuffing from sofas, commercially sold mouse/hamster bedding, kapok or even dried moss and cut up bits of grass not straw will do.
  4. Food. The queen will want nectar and pollen nearby, so that her eggs do not get cold. So if your garden has masses of lavender and other summer flowers she might ignore it - the promise of food to come is meaningless to her. She needs food now, so spring flowers are the thing. Even a couple of flowering heathers in pots might be enough to tempt her.
  5. Do not keep checking the box to see if she is OK. I know the temptation is hard to resist, but do resist it until she really has decided to set up home.

You can tell if a bumblebee queen has found a nest site by looking at her hind legs. If she is carrying pollen in her pollen baskets then she has found a nest and is taking home food to make a store in case the weather turns bad. She makes "bee bread" - a sticky mix of nectar and pollen which she kneads into a ball the size of a pea. Then she lays her eggs on this, and broods them like a bird keeping them at around 30 C. All this time she still has to gather enough food to feed herself. To do this she has to leave her eggs, and this is dangerous as they cool down quickly in the cold weather. She will be the sole provider of the nest until the first batch of workers hatch out as adults. Then she can sit back and relax a little while they take over the hard and dangerous work of gathering pollen and nectar.

Laura Smith

Nature Blog Network

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo: Jessica Oreck: Myriapod Productions

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo: Jessica Oreck: Myriapod Productions

In this guest post, filmmaker Jessica Oreck answers a few questions about her documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. The film, which delves into the ineffable mystery of Japan's age-old love affair with insects, is currently playing in theaters around the world and will air on PBS's Independent Lens series in the U.S. in May 2011.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo Trailer from Myriapod Productions on Vimeo.

Where did the idea to make Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo come from?

I was helping out in a classroom where a guest speaker, a young Japanese woman, was talking about different elements of Japanese culture. She mentioned, in passing, that people in Japan love insects. I have loved insects since I was a little girl, so my interest was immediately piqued. I studied filmmaking, biology, and ecology in university, and I knew I wanted to make films about ethnobiology (the way human cultures interact with the natural world), so this was the perfect film with which to start.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

I raced to start my research but there was nothing about this phenomenon in English. Reluctantly, I set the idea aside. But only two days later, my sister is sitting in an airport in Baltimore, and she and the young man sitting next to her strike up a conversation. He is a bicultural Japanese American entomologist who travels around the US giving talks about Japanese love of insects. Um, providence? During our first phone call I told Akito Kawahara that I wanted to make this movie. He said something along the lines of, “Cool. We can stay at my parents house and I’ll introduce you to all of my beetle collecting friends.” It wasn’t quite as easy as that makes it sound, but it really feels like the stars aligned for this particular project.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

How did you produce this film, and what are some of the challenges you overcame in the process?

Thanks to Akito, most of our subjects were chosen far in advance. We were also a really small crew: myself (recording sound), my boyfriend, Sean Price Williams, as camera, and then my best friend Maiko Endo as translator. So the actual production was, well, a blast. But determining the structure of the narrative, that was a bit more complicated. I knew I didn’t want main characters – I was more interested in the movements of social masses. I also had no intention of a formal narrative arc. I had a mystery, and I wanted to solve it, but I wasn’t going to force it into the conventions of a ‘story.’ I wanted to move backwards through time, uncovering clues that would point to how this cultural phenomenon came into being. I started with that idea and eventually the form of a filmic spiral shaped itself in my head – one that would move three-dimensionally around the subject (insects in Japanese culture through time), while allowing the periphery (history, philosophy, religion) to inform the framing.
I did extensive research before traveling to Japan – I drafted a 20-page essay containing pieces of Japanese history and philosophy that I wanted to include in the film. As the editing process progressed I continued to refine the ‘essay,’ skimming off outer details. That shortened essay (at three and a half pages) was translated into Japanese and became the voice over. Between editing the footage and writing and editing the narration, it was a very organic process. Everything just seemed to fall into place.

In general, what kind of relationship do Japanese kids have with the insect world, and how does this compare with the relationship most American kids have?

A Japanese child’s relation to insects isn’t that different from an American’s child connection – if you catch them young enough. Most young children don’t have an innate fear of bugs (from my experience watching thousands of them pass through the butterfly vivarium at the American Museum of Natural History). It isn’t until they see the dad flinch or the mom scream that they learn disgust or fear. What’s different with Japanese children is that they are encouraged to explore the insect world.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

They keep them as pets, their dads take them on insect collecting trips, and they travel halfway across the country to watch the fireflies emerge at dusk. Of course I am really generalizing – but the phenomenon is generally quite widespread. I think that an individual’s understanding of the natural world is still mostly directly absorbed through the behavior of the people he or she admires, and that that is one of the reasons why this connection to insects continues to thrive in Japanese culture.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

Did the people you met think it was odd that you, an American filmmaker, were so interested in this particular aspect of Japanese culture?

Everyone seemed happy to have us, though they were often confused by why we were making this film. We got a lot of, “What? They don’t sell beetles in America?”

What can this film teach Westerners about Japanese culture and values? What do you hope will really resonate with your viewers?

Those are big questions. What I have learned from Japanese culture that I think about most often is the concept of mono no aware. Essentially, mono no aware is the appreciation of beauty that is transient. For instance, to the Japanese, cherry blossoms are the most beautiful when they are falling. But mono no aware has implications outside of this definition. It isn’t necessarily limited to beauty – it is also about focusing on each moment as it passes. It sounds hackneyed to say “appreciate the moment,” but making Beetle Queen has helped me do that (at least more often than I used to).

I hope this is something viewers take away from the film as well, but I don’t want to limit the potential influences it could have. I have seen many diverse reactions. Plenty of people have been surprised by the loss of their fear, or by newfound knowledge, or a novel appreciation of beauty in unanticipated facets of their lives. But my favorite story is of a World War II veteran who approached me after a screening of Beetle Queen. He said something to the effect of, “For fifty years I have thought of the Japanese as my enemy. And in the past hour and a half, you have changed that.”

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