Wander outside in the spring and summer and I bet you will bump into a busy bumble bee bumbling among the wildflowers. Bumble bees (Bombus sp.) are rather rotund, fuzzy bees usually with black and yellow-orange stripes. Unlike the famous honey bee that hails from Europe and Asia, most bumble bee species are native to our area. Bumble bees have small underground colonies with a loose social system, compared to that of a honey bee. While bumble bees produce honey, it is in small quantities and certainly not enough to share on an industrial scale. Still, these fuzzy bumbles play an important role as pollinators of local wildflower populations and are even adapted to pollinate certain flowers!
This fashionable bumble bee is trying to squeeze into a little pair of white breeches! Duchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) to be exact. A bumble bee’s proboscis (tongue) is long enough to reach the nectaries within the nectary spurs or “pant leg” and the bee is strong enough to push open the flower petals to collect pollen.
This bumble bee is sipping nectar from squawroot (Conopholis americana). Bumble bees and flies are the typical visitors of this parasitic plant! Fun fact: bumble bees “buzz” pollenate, which means they vibrate their bodies, effectively knocking pollen down into the flowers they visit.
Upon observing the flight of a bumble bee, I have noticed that while they are strong flyers, they are not the most graceful. Sometimes they miss their mark and land on a chunk of moss instead of the flower. However, they just take that moment to rest their wings before firing up their little motor and buzzing off into, hopefully, the next flower. Their rather clunky flight pattern gave me an idea for a fun activity to help young children learn about pollinators (and sneak in a STEM activity): The Bumble “Weee” Catapult! See below for assembly instructions:
3 pipe cleaners
Pen or pencil
Recycled egg carton
Recycled plastic spoon
4-5 large Rubber bands
Let’s dismiss the idea of launching real bumble bees and begin building the bee puppet 😉. Pick 3 different colors of pipe cleaner. Feel free to go with traditional bee colors or mix it up!
1. For the body, twist together two pipe cleaners.
2. Wrap the twisted pipe cleaners tightly around a pen or pencil and slide it off.
3. Tuck the loose ends inward and tighten up the coils on the end you would call the head.
4. For the wings, shorten the remaining pipe cleaner by 1/3, then loop it under one of the coils of the bee’s body.
5. Adjust the pipe cleaner for equal length on either side and twist at the base.
6. Roll in the loose ends to finish forming your wings, thus completing the bumble bee.
Next, build the catapult to help your bee puppet fly. The catapult consists of half of an egg carton, 4-5 rubber bands, and a recycled spoon. Tension energy is generated when the spoon is pulled back. The arm stores that energy as potential energy. Upon release, that potential energy is transferred to the object as kinetic energy, moving the object away from the arm. Pictured is the simplest catapult design with rubber bands holding the spoon, or arm of the catapult, in place. Feel free to design something more elaborate!
Finally, the bumble bee needs a flower to land in! Draw a flower of your choice on a piece of paper and color it in. Many bees are able to see UV light, which means they are able see colors and patterns invisible to the human naked eye. Some flowers have nectar guides that really stand out to bees, so feel free to draw some nectar guides, or lines that point to the center on your flower targets to help guide your bumble bee!
Feel free to create as many flowers as you like and propel your little bumble bee into as many flowers as you can. Happy pollinating!
Sara Klingensmith an educator at Powdermill Nature Reserve, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s environmental research center. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.