What’s that bumblebee buzz?

Flickr: bagsgroove

By John Upton

The seemingly menacing deep buzzing noise produced by a bumblebee rings out only when the insect reaches a flower. It’s not a warning or a threat, nor is it a noise produced by flight. It’s called sonication — rapid movements of a bee’s muscles that create vibrations to shake pollen loose from a flower’s anther.

This feeding strategy is also known as buzz pollination, and it’s a faculty lacked by the smaller European honeybees. But the sound is disappearing from landscapes everywhere along with the bumblebees that produce it. In a story that coincided with national pollinator week, I reported yesterday for Grist on the decline of native American bumblebees, a terrifying phenomenon that has long been overshadowed by the plague of colony collapse disorder.

Bumblebees need flower-rich habitats and they need to be able to feed without sucking up insecticides. Every flowering plant relies on pollination, and bumblebees do much of that work.

Here’s a video from YouTube showing a sonicating bumblebee. Perhaps you remember a time when this sound was more common.