Dear Dr. Universe: We have a lawn full of clovers that bumble bees love. Where do bumble bees live? Do they have hives or live underground? I love watching them. Do they live through winter? –Karen, Arizona

Dear Karen,

When it comes time for bumble bees to find a home, it’s pretty much up to the queen bee.

That’s what I found out from my friends Rachel Olsson and Elias Bloom. They are graduate student researchers here at Washington State University and really curious about bees, too.

Like you, we enjoy watching bees in their natural habitat. They buzz and zip from flower to flower, sipping nectar with their hairy tongues. Bloom said bumble bees are actually pretty social. They live in colonies with dozens to hundreds of fellow bumble bees.

As part of their research, Bloom and Olsson are helping citizen scientists collect information about these important pollinators and other kinds of bees.

While some bees live in hives, a lot of queen bees will find a place to live underground, Bloom said. They’ll use burrows that mice or other rodents have abandoned. Other queens will find a clump of grass at the surface to call home. These kinds of houses help protect them from predators and extreme temperatures.

Before winter comes around, the bumble bee colonies will rear new queens. Meanwhile, the worker bees will die off. The new queens will mate and find a place to live for the winter.

To answer your second question, only the queens live through the winter. When their eggs hatch later in the spring, the cycle begins all over.

Bloom and Olsson like to remind people that flowers like dandelions and buttercups, which we might call weeds and want to get rid of, are actually really important.

Since bees come out early in the year, before other flowers are blooming, it’s important to let these flowers grow. The plant produces nectar and pollen that attracts bees, and while collecting pollen for food, the bee helps the plant reproduce. Bumble bees continue to surprise us with the kinds of work that they can do.

Scientists recently studied how bumble bees can use tools. They showed bumble bees how to put a yellow ball into a little goal.

When the bumble bees scored, they were rewarded with sugar. They got better and better at getting the ball in the goal.

You can get involved with bee research of your own. The Bumble Bee Watch project invites citizen scientists to help conserve North America’s top pollinators.

And if any readers happen to live in the Pacific Northwest, you can get involved with a research project from WSU. You’ll help us learn more about the role pollinators play in helping us produce food and you’ll learn to identify bees in the wild. You can get started at nwpollinators.org.

Your friend,
Dr. Universe

Here’s a chance to get your very own Dr. Universe sticker! Take the survey and enter to win at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/survey.