Crawlies with Cri: Black-tailed bumblebee

Black-tailed bumblebee (Bombus melanopygus)
(Photo by Christy Solo for the Illinois Valley News)

This week’s crawly is a big, boldly colored bumble. Meet the black-tailed bumblebee (Bombus melanopygus)!
Looking at our pictured black-tailed, “black-tailed” is surely not the first mark that catches your eye and would lead you to give this fuzzy buzzer that common name.
Black-tailed do also have the less common common name “orange-rumped,” which seems to make more sense. However, not all black-tailed bumbles have that fiery red-orange band. Some are just black and yellow and fuzzy all over.
Every black-tailed does have a black “tail.” That is to say, the last segment of their abdomen has black hairs in the very center with some yellow hairs around it, even if they lack the red-orange belly band.
Black-tailed are a western species, found mostly in Washington, Oregon and California, but also in all other states west of the Rockies. Now and then an adventurous black-tailed makes their way further past the Rockies but those sightings in the Eastern U.S. are rare.
While both forms (orange and no orange) can be found throughout the black-tailed’s range, the no orange (orangeless?) is more common in Oregon and California than in other areas.
One of the niftiest things about the black-tailed is they are a year-round bumble. They do hibernate like all other bumblebee species, but unlike most, they’ll come out of hibernation on warm(ish) days in the dead of winter. They’ll catch some sun then go back into hibernation.
They are also one of the first bees to fully emerge from hibernation in spring. If you have crocus in your yard, you have a very good chance of seeing them tucked away in a crocus flower in February.
Their early emergence makes them important pollinators because there are relatively few early pollinators around. Black-tailed do a lot of that early spring pollination heavy lifting.
At three-quarters of an inch, they are a medium-sized bumble, perfect for getting at pollen and nectar in flowers of various sizes.
They are also adaptable when it comes to habitat. Black-tailed can thrive just as easily in dry chapparal ecosystems as they can in our humid riparian areas. Likewise, they thrive in our coastal areas and up, up into subalpine meadows.
When it comes to nectar for adults and pollen for the kiddos, black-tailed are not picky eaters. They will visit lots of different flower families to gather provisions. Flowers include: manzanitas, wild lilacs, goldenbushes, wild buckwheats, lupines, penstemons, rhododendrons, willows, sages and clovers as well as 35 other flower families. Black-tailed are capital “A” adaptable.
Generally, they build underground nests, taking advantage of abandoned rodent burrows, but they will also use tree hollows and unoccupied bird houses as well.
Even though black-tailed get a jump on spring, queens, workers and males are still out and about and active from now through late September, possibly even into October. Any black-tailed you see during the winter months will be a queen practicing the “sun’s out, bun’s out” philosophy before napping again and waiting for those first crocus to burst forth.