1. Fire-induced changes in the abundance and distribution of organisms, especially plants, can alter resource landscapes for mobile consumers driving bottom-up effects on their population sizes, morphologies, and reproductive potential. We expect these impacts to be most striking for obligate visitors of plants, like bees and other pollinators, but these impacts can be difficult to interpret due to the limited information provided by forager counts in the absence of survival or fitness proxies.
2. Increased bumble bee worker abundance is often coincident with the pulses of flowers that follow recent fire. However, it is unknown if observed postfire activity is due to underlying population growth or a stable pool of colonies recruiting more foragers to abundant resource patches. This distinction is necessary for determining the net impact of disturbance on bumble bees: are there population-wide responses or do just a few colonies reap the rewards?
3. We estimated colony abundance before and after fire in burned and unburned areas using a genetic mark-recapture framework. We paired colony abundance estimates with measures of body size, counts of queens, and estimates of foraging and dispersal to assess changes in worker size, reproductive output, and landscape-scale movements.
4. Higher floral abundance following fire not only increased forager abundance, but also the number of colonies from which those foragers came. Importantly, despite a larger population size we also observed increased mean worker size. Two years following fire, queen abundance was higher in both burned and unburned sites, potentially due to the dispersal of queens from burned into unburned areas. The effects of fire were transient; within two growing seasons, worker abundance was substantially reduced across the entire sampling area and body sizes were similar between burned and unburned sites.
5. Our results reveal how disturbance can temporarily release populations from resource limitation, boosting the genetic diversity, body size, and reproductive output of populations. Given that the effects of fire on bumble bees acted indirectly through pulsed resource availability, it is likely our results are generalizable to other situations, such as habitat restorations, where resource density is enhanced within the landscape.