What the Bee Sees

Fifteen or more traffic signs line the western side of Mission

Boulevard, a low-traffic road that leads to our local hospital. Matt and I have been walking down this street every few days, as it’s flat (i.e., easy for third-trimester pregnant me to handle) and surrounded by beautiful, open land.

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So, on Saturday we walked down this road around 7pm,

and we noticed something that made us both crack up: A fat yellow and black bumblebee hovering within feet of a “No Parking” traffic sign. He was hanging around right in front of the large red letters, and we looked at him quizzically, joking that he must be working on his reading.

When we got to the next sign, about 50 or 60 feet farther down the road, we both raised our eyebrows: Another bumblebee was buzzing around the front of THIS sign, too. Weird. Yet another 50-plus feet on, and the next sign had its own resident bumblebee, hovering a few feet to the side of the sign, but still where he was able to see the red letters on the white background. We were stumped.

This continued for the next dozen or so signs – they never

failed to include a bee. When we walked by several of the signs, we got to witness two, or even three bumblebees exhibiting territorial behavior: The bee that had been there first would zoom around and chase the others away, then go right back to hovering within sight of the sign’s front. We started taking bets about whether or not the next sign would have a bumblebee, and inevitably, it always did.

This bumblebee liked the black on white speed limit sign

So, what’s up with this?

We were cracking up and totally confounded by this silly “bee”havior (har har). There was still enough light in the sky to cause some iridescent shimmering on the surface of the signs, and only on the front, which the bees were clearly facing. Was it something about the iridescent colors on the white signs that caught the bees’ interest? This seems like a semi-logical explanation – perhaps that the bees were attracted to the many colors similar to the colors in flowers. Maybe they each thought they’d found the long-prophesied ginormous flower of their strange bumblebee myths? That would certainly be something worth “guarding” from other bees (and us as well, as we also got chased a few times!).

But if that’s the case, why were NONE of the bumblebees trying to collect nectar or pollen from these great, shiny “No Parking” flowers? All they did was hover a few feet away, always within sight of the front of their big “finds.” There was no obvious place to build a hive on each sign. We further conjectured that maybe each bee planned to use the sign as a way to “draw” in a potential mate. From what I’ve read online, though, it seems that bumblebees typically mate in autumn.

UPDATE:

We ended up going back the next evening to take some photos and see what the bees were up to. The bumblebees were still hanging out, but this time, we were able to make a few more observations:

  1. There is always a bumblebee around the white signs that say “No Parking” in red, or the white signs that report the speed limit in black.
  2. We never saw a bumblebee around the yellow pedestrian signs — and there are at least four along the street.
  3. We saw several bumblebees guarding the green and white fence posts to the side of the road, but not as consistently as for the white signs.
  4. We did spot one bumblebee hanging out at the very top of a streetlight.

Our Conclusions?

Generally, the bees seem attracted to white/light signs/objects (one was even hovering around a white fire hydrant). They seem to show the most territoriality around the white “No Parking” and speed limit signs, however. In other cases, they didn’t appear too fussed when we approached, and they sometimes backed off. This made us think that perhaps the smaller objects (such as the green/white fence posts and the white fire hydrant) were not as desirable to the bumblebees as the white traffic signs with their iridescence.

Needless to say, I’m more confused than ever, but totally intrigued

by this funny behavior from the insect world. There’s something almost whimsical about watching insects or animals interact with human inventions. These interactions allow us to apply human attributes to non-human creatures (anthropomorphism), such as Matt and I joking that the bees were practicing their reading skills. Yet we know that there’s obviously something entirely different than that attracting the bees to these man-made signs. There’s simply something moving about the idea that an item humans have created has become an object of pure fascination for creatures we don’t understand. We influence them in so many ways – yes, often negative, with habitat destruction, and behavioral modification through things like birdfeeders, etc. – yet seeing something like bumblebees seemingly mesmerized by “No Parking” signs gives me a sense of wonder at the inexplicable and entirely unexpected ways that we influence the natural world. It feels like a form of (inadvertent) communication and interaction between us and them. Is that silly? Perhaps. But it still makes me smile 🙂

Your Thoughts?

We’d love to hear your thoughts and any theories about why these bumblers may have been interested in normally prosaic traffic signs – got any ideas? We had fun observing the bumblebees, and from now on, I will definitely not look at those “No Parking” signs the same 😉