July arrived before I had seen even a dozen bumblebees; I was afraid that they were gone for good. The blackberries had made alternate arrangements for pollination. The vegetation installed specifically to support the bees was largely bloomed out — most notably the wild lilac, which I happen to know is their favorite thing in the whole world.
Then I began to see a few bumblebees here and there by the roadside. And now it turns out that our rooftop garden is loaded with them. Click on the image below (or here for a high-resolution version):
These big black bees are Bombus vosnesenskii, the Yellow-Faced Bumblebee. Popular with farmers generally, they’re the champion pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes. Plus, they’re immensely fun to interact with. It’s sometimes possible to touch the luxurious fur of one that’s fully engaged with a flower, though she may wave a middle leg or two as a warning.
Bumblebees don’t have the same kind of regimented homelife that honeybees have: a bumblebee won’t always make it back to the nest at the end of the day, and may be found the next morning waiting for enough warmth to get started. The image of the bee sleeping in the palm of the hand is celebrated in popular music, but note that bees vary somewhat in their disposition. If the bees in your neighborhood look like ours but turn out to be B. fervidis instead, you may get a different reception.
The other two species we used to see were much more numerous: B. californicus, which is banded much like B. vosnesenskii but has a black face; and B. sitkensis, smaller, scruffier, and popular in Alsaska for getting its work done in a short growing season. Our current environment has a different mix of flowers from our old garden, and bees are apt to specialize, so we don’t have a clear picture of how our bees are faring. The Yellow-Faced bee is said to have edged out its local competitors through a strategy of emerging early; maybe now they’re just resting on their laurels.