“According to the laws of aerodynamics, bumble bees cannot fly,” stated the motivational speaker emphatically. “Their bodies are too heavy for the wings to lift.” Then he sagely concluded, “But don’t tell that to the bumble bee.” His point was clear: Since bumble bees don’t read physics texts, they do the impossible, so don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.
I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, but it is based on an old wives’ tale. Bumble bees don’t defy the laws of aerodynamics. They just exploit a process called non-linear dynamic stall that builds a temporary vortex on top of the wing. As this vortex moves from front to back, it creates up to three times the normal lift. There is no magic, just the physics of wings that move fast and rapidly change angles.
There are about 50 species of native bumble bees in North America. They may be small as a honeybee or as large as a quarter, “furry” and usually are a combination of black with orange, yellow or white.
You may hear a bumble bee before you see it because of its ominous buzzing. This was once thought to be wing movement but the bumble bee can buzz without moving its wings. Buzzing results from the rapid vibration of the wing muscles which can be disconnected from the wings.
Buzzing is useful in several ways. Bumble bees use it to warm their bodies just as ground squirrels waking from hibernation use shivering. Some queen bumble bees buzz to warm their eggs and hasten development.
The buzzing serves another purpose as well. When a bumble bee grabs onto a blossom and buzzes, the vibration can dislodge even the most stubborn pollen from the anthers. Known as sonic or buzz pollination, this is key for pollinating about eight percent of the world’s plants. Tomato growers routinely house colonies of bumble bees in their greenhouses as honeybees are very poor tomato pollinators.
Like the non-native honeybee, bumble bees are social insects. The colony starts when a single queen emerges from her winter hibernation where, like a bear, she has been surviving on fat accumulated the fall before. She immediately seeks a pollen source from an early blooming species such as willow. Then she finds an appropriate home—
an abandoned mouse hole is about perfect—for her new colony.
She lays a few eggs and gathers provisions for them. After these hatch, grow and then pupate, she lays another batch. Once the first group, all sterile worker bees, hatches, the queen will rarely leave the nest, concentrating instead on producing up to 400 offspring.
Near the end of summer, one of the last batches of eggs becomes males and new queens. Queens and males mate, queens head off to find shelter to overwinter and workers and males await their fate.
While it may be a myth that bumblebees defy the laws of aerodynamics, there is still plenty to admire about these cute, essential native bees.
Terry Thomas is a wildlife biologist with 27 years of experience. Opinions expressed are his own.
We weren’t 50 yards down the nature trail at Stephen C. Foster State Park in Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia when half a dozen red-headed woodpeckers swarmed near us.
As we were trying to sort out the calls and juveniles from adults, a red-bellied woodpecker began to hammer away above us. A few steps farther and we stopped again, this time to glass a pair of pileated woodpeckers that came winging in, their crow-sized bodies dwarfing the other woodpeckers.
Before we made it another 50 yards, a yellow-bellied sapsucker joined the party. I don’t know if they were just migrating or if they had been attracted by the recently burned trees around the boardwalk, but for whatever reason, it was woodpecker paradise.
With 22 North American species and 200 more worldwide, woodpeckers should be familiar to everyone. There are woodpeckers, all members of the Picidae family, on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. Surprisingly, the species-rich islands of Madagascar and New Zealand also have no native woodpeckers.
Woodpeckers worldwide share a number of characteristics. They all have strong, stout bills with which they excavate holes in trees and large cacti looking for insects and creating their nesting cavities. Their two central tail feathers are stiffened to act as a brace, something like a bicycle kickstand, for their hammering. All woodpeckers also have elongated tongues, some up to 4 inches long, for probing into holes and crevices for food.
They do not have mating songs. Instead, they drum on trees and other objects to attract mates and establish territories. Most have four toes, two pointing forward and two pointing back, but there are also a number of species with only three toes.
Recognizing woodpeckers gets easier the more you see them. The most common colors among woodpeckers are black, white, red and yellow. In fact, for the North American species, black and white form the base colors of all species. Flickers and several other woodpeckers are also tan, but the black and white is still prominent.
In flight, woodpeckers can be recognized by an undulating or wavy flight. They beat their wings three times then fold them against their body, causing them to drop a bit before they beat their wings again. Woodpeckers can hammer up to 20 times a second for as many as 12,000 pecks a day. Just thinking of that gives me a headache, but it doesn’t bother the birds. Their skulls are reinforced to distribute the impact, and their brains are well-cushioned.
Woodpeckers are a keystone species in many ways. Without the holes they excavate, hundreds of species of birds and mammals would be homeless. They also control many forest pests that could otherwise get out of hand. And when sapsuckers drill for sap, they provide food for a number of species, including migrating hummingbirds.
I don’t expect to always be as lucky as that day in Okefenokee. But I do enjoy seeing woodpeckers of any species and will always be grateful for the benefits they provide to other wildlife.
A wildlife biologist with 27 years of experience. Opinions expressed are his own.
Do you own a Wildlife specialty license plate?
Did you know that the Idaho Wildlife specialty license plates are sponsored by the Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation?
A portion of each purchase or renewal of a Wildlife plate helps to support wildlife diversity programs. These programs provide wildlife biodiversity research and management; habitat rehabilitation and restoration; and conservation education programs and materials.
To learn more about Idaho’s Wildlife specialty license plates,Visit: http://wildlifelicenseplates.com
The Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation has recently welcomed Rob Santa of Hailey, Idaho, as the newest member of its volunteer Board of Directors.
Santa’s career has been a broad involvement in many aspects of the outdoor recreation industry. He owned and operated Sturtevants of Sun Valley for 30 years. Santa is an avid outdoorsman, enjoying skiing, biking, hiking and fly–fishing.
Santa has a notable record of community involvement, which includes the Wood River Legacy Project, the Idaho Conservation League, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited, among other interests.