Everything You Need to Know About The Bumble Bee

September 8, 2022

A bumble bee foraging on a blue hydrangea.

Contents:

 

What is a Bumble Bee?

 

Bumble bees are all members of the Apidae family and are social bees found throughout the northern hemisphere and South America. With about 250 species of bumble bees present worldwide, most bumble bees live in temperate conditions, although a few can be found in tropical locations. Bumble bees are large and furry, and are capable of flying in cool temperatures. Similar to the honey bee and the carpenter bee, bumble bees are vital pollinators that make a substantial contribution to the food that we eat — as well as our overall global economy. 

–– Interested to know how the bees are doing? Download our State of the Honey Bee Report now –– 

 

Types of Bumble Bees

 

Bumble bee foraging for pollen and nectar from a purple flower
Bumble bees are very fuzzy — more fuzzy than carpenter or honey bees!

 

As mentioned above, there are about 250 species of bumble bees, but some of the notable types of bumble bees include the Garden Bumble Bee, Tree Bumble Bee, and the Eastern Bumble Bee. 

  • Garden Bumble Bee: This is a black bumble bee with three lemon-yellow stripes (two on the thorax, one on the abdomen) and a white tail. Male, queen, and worker all share this coloration, although the male has a yellow head (only rarely are all-black bees found). This bee is distinguishable from similar species by its long, narrow face. This long-tongued pollinator prefers a diet of red clover, foxglove, honeysuckle, and many other plants. This bee is fairly common in a wide range of habitats (gardens, farmland, grassland, and woodland), but seldom found in marshy or upland moorland sites. 
  • Tree Bumble Bee: The male, queen, and worker Tree Bumble Bee all have a ginger-brown furry body with a black head and a white tip to the tail. The male may have some yellow hair on his face. This short-tongued species typically visits plants such as rhododendrons, grape hyacinths, fruit trees and soft fruit. The Tree Bumble Bee is common through much of central Europe and Asia and has spread widely since 1990, reaching England in 2001 and Iceland in 2008. You’ll likely see this pollinator in open woodland, grassland, town parks, urban gardens, and roadside verges. 
  • Common Eastern Bumble Bee: This is a black-brown bee with golden fur on the thorax and black hairs on the head, abdomen, and legs. Worker bees closely resemble the queen but are smaller, and the male has some golden hairs on his face but is otherwise like the other castes. The Eastern Bumble Bee visits a wide range of wild flowers and garden plants, but is typically seen on goldenrod in late summer and fall. You can find the Eastern Bumble Bee in many rural and urban habitats, from the cold of Canada and Minnesota to subtropical Florida. 

 

Bumble Bee Quick Facts

 

  • Color: Large and fuzzy with black and yellow coloration, although some species contain orange or red. 
  • Number of Legs: Six 
  • Shape: Robust and round. 
  • Antennae: Yes
  • Region: Found throughout the northern hemisphere and South America. 

 

Bumble Bee Biology

 

 

  • Diet and foraging behavior: Similar to the honey bee, a bumble bee harvests nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants. According to Renee Bolivar, The Best Bees Company Lead Horticulturist, bumble bees also pollinate plants like tomatoes and peppers. 
  • Wax production: BuzzAboutBees.Net says “Yes, bumble bees also make wax, and they use it for constructing nectar pots, and covering eggs. With bumble bees, the making of wax starts after the queen has found a suitable place to nest.” 
  • Pollination: Bumble bees use stiff hairs on their legs to groom most of the pollen into specialized pockets on their legs or body, but leave some pollen coating the hair on the body. Bumble bees are especially useful for pollination, because unlike other kinds of bees they have the ability to “buzz pollinate” flowers such as tomatoes, which includes the bees hovering close to the flowers, allowing pollen on their body to be released.
  • Temperature control: A University of Washington study in 2007 revealed that bumble bees warm and cool their hives by using their wings. Similar to honey bees, bumble bees will fan their wings when it becomes too hot inside their hive. But when it gets colder, bumble bees will “vibrate their wing muscles to shunt heat down to their abdomen, which they hold up against larvae-containing comb.” 
  • Communication and social learning: Bumble bees are eusocial bees, similar to the honey bee, sweat bee, and carpenter bee. According to The Bee: A Natural History, written by Best Bees CEO and Co-Founder Noah Wilson-Rich, eusocial animals are defined as “those that live in highly complex groups, with three additional requirements. These groups must have an overlap of generations, a reproductive division of labor (worker castes versus reproductive castes), and cooperative care of the brood.” In other words, these true societies have a reproductively dominant individual (typically a queen), and she lays eggs that are reared by individuals other than their mother — for example, by worker bees acting as nurses to the young.
  • Lifecycle: The cycle of the bumble bee, like that of the honey bee, contains four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The queen initially cares for her eggs after laying them, and although bumble bees are communal, a new queen is responsible for starting her colony each year. She lays her first batch of eggs and forages for food, providing for and incubating her young developing brood. A bumble bee queen tends to lay her eggs in batches of five to ten on balls of pollen that she has created and then seals her brood cells with wax before incubating them. When the first females hatch, they become the worker bees and take over the foraging and provisioning duties while the queen lays and incubates the next batch of eggs. Queens overwinter in small holes beneath or on the ground’s surface, emerging in spring to create new colonies.
  • Reproduction: Unlike most of the natural world, bee societies are female-driven, with limited exceptions. The bumble bee follows a monandrous mating system, which means that a female only mates with one male in her lifetime. Monandrous mating can ensure that the strongest male genes are passed on to support colony cooperation. When a bee species is monandrous, all the eggs that are destined to develop into workers are fertilized with the sperm of a single male. This high level of relatedness may lead to high levels of cooperation in the colony, and thus improve productivity and reproductive fitness. 
  • Common predators: BumbleBeeConservation.Org notes that “bumblebees have many predators, some of which are mammals and birds…”, but that the main predator is the badger, which uses its strong claws to dig up nests and eat the larvae and food stores.

 

Bumble Bee vs Carpenter Bee: How to Identify a Bumble Bee

 

Carpenter bees are often mistaken for bumble bees, but there are a few ways that you can tell these two pollinators apart. First, we can compare the two visually; although both are dark and can have orange/yellow color, a carpenter bee’s abdomen is black, bare, and shiny, while the abdomen of a bumble bee is very fuzzy with yellow markings.

Another difference between these two bees is their behavior: bumble bees are known as social insects, in which they live with many other bees and depend on each other to survive. Comparatively, a carpenter bee is solitary and doesn’t form a hive (although they sometimes nest in small groups).

The male carpenter bee does not have a stinger but it uses its large, buzzing body to protect its territory. Bumble bees have stingers and can use them without ever losing the stinger itself – similar to the female carpenter bee, a bumble bee is not typically aggressive and will only sting if it feels like its colony is threatened. To learn more about the carpenter bee, read our previous blog.

 

Bumble Bee Habitat

 

close up look at bumble bees in their nest
A bumble bee nest, full of natural fibers and balls of pollen. Photo courtesy of Clare Flynn.

 

Nest or hives? While bumble bees contain many similarities to the honey bee, their nesting habits are quite different. Bumble bees typically choose nesting sites that are close to the ground, and will even create their home in pre-existing holes. According to ABCWildlife.com, a bumble bee nest resembles a pile of debris because it contains leaves, animal fur, or even housing insulation. Bumble bee nests are quite small in comparison to the honey bee hive, as a well-established bumble bee nest can contain up to 400 bumble bees, while the honey bee hive will contain 50,000 bees. 

Creating homes for bumble bees: Honey bees are the most commonly managed bee species, but they are not the only ones! By creating a nest for native bees such as the bumble bee, you can help awaken a deeper appreciation for the pollinators around us and help increase their overall health and population. 

Here’s how you can help create a nesting site for bumble bees: 

  1. By using gloved hands or a tool such as a shovel, gently transfer an existing nest into a container the size of a shoe box (which needs to be weatherproofed if it is placed outdoors). Bumble bee nests may be kept indoors — for example, they can be used for greenhouse pollination. 
  2. The box should be on or near ground, and filled with fluffy material such as cotton, with a small hole (about as wide as a human thumb) on at least one side for an entrance. 

 

Bumble Bee Control, Prevention & Removal

 

Bumble bee nests can be commonly found in dark spaces like beneath sheds, in hollowed-out trees, abandoned holes, house walls, and more – and if you locate a bumble bee nest near your home, it’s important to know what methods of control, prevention, and removal are available to you. 

Above all, if you encounter a bumble bee nest near your home (but the nest itself has not been built onto your home), we recommend leaving these pollinators be. Bumble bees are not aggressive by nature, and allowing them to go back to their nest in your yard will help this native bee continue its pollination duties. However, if you have located a bumble bee nest and it’s no longer possible to leave the nest as it is, we do recommend getting in touch with your local beekeeping organization. By having an expert on-site to address the situation, they will be able to provide specific guidance about the nest, while safely relocating it. 

Prevention is also a very powerful method of bumble bee nest control, and according to ThanosHome.com, sprinkling natural repellents like citrus, cinnamon, clove and garlic around your garden and home can help discourage bumble bees from building a nest where you don’t want one (essential oils like citronella, peppermint, and tea tree work as well). 

 

Bumble Bee Conservation Efforts

 

Bumble bee nest in the ground
A bumble bee nest, built into the ground. Photo courtesy of BeeHiveHero.

 

Over the last 70 years, the bumble bee population has altered. Although they rarely appear in the headlines, many of the world’s other bee species have also been in decline over the last 50 years, and particularly over the last 20 years. For example, the United Kingdom has lost three bumble bee species in the last 150 years (although they are found outside of the U.K.). 

According to Noah Wilson-Rich, the term bumble bee scarcity syndrome was coined in Europe in 2012 to describe situations where the number of bumble bees seen was abnormally lower than expected due to heat waves. 

Bumble bees, with their furry bodies, evolved in the cooler regions of the world. Within their normal habitat ranges, increasing temperatures — resulting in both warmer winters and hotter summers — could affect their ability to survive. Because of this, many bumble bee species that were once widespread throughout the British Isles have now retreated to the Scottish coast and islands. 

The great yellow bumble bee is one formerly common species that is now endangered, largely due to intensive farming since the 1960s. Now restricted to the machair, a unique wild grassland habitat found on Hebridean islands and the coastal grasslands of north and west Scotland, the bee is slowly recovering, aided by the restoration of natural habitats and the planting of borage, a flower upon which it forages. 

These practical measures were undertaken by a partnership of conservation organizations using teams of volunteers who planted suitable habitats, made observations, created public awareness, and worked with farmers and crofters to help this rare species. 

 

Bumble Bee Stings

 

Bumble bees vary in aggressiveness, and bees from some of the bumble bee species that form larger colonies can defend their nests tenaciously. The bumble bee’s sting is unbarbed, so it can be withdrawn easily from human skin, but a sting may nonetheless result in a reaction similar to that caused by honey bees or wasps. For more information on bee sting prevention and treatment, check out our blog post on the topic

 

Bumble Bees in Culture

 

A person sits cross legged on a yoga mat meditating using bumble bee breathing
“Bumble bee breath” is a meditative breathing technique that mimics the hum of a bumble bee on the exhale.

 

We know that bumble bees are hardworking pollinators that contribute to our global economy and food supply, but these bees have a symbolic meaning to people as well — one of productivity, community, and focus. They are also commonly associated with springtime, and their likeness has been reproduced in jewelry, clothing, textiles, art, and more. 

 Pure-Spirit.com notes that ancient Druids even viewed the bumble bee as a symbol for the sun, the Goddess, celebration, and community. In yoga practice today, there is even a breathing technique called the Bumble Bee Breath (Bhramari Pranayama), which allows people to find focus, relieve stress, and “involves quiet, steady inhales, and a steady humming sound on each exhale.”

 

FAQs

 

Q: Do bumble bees sting? 

A: Bumble bee workers and queens have the ability to sting multiple times, and do so to defend themselves and their nest. 

Q: Are bumble bees aggressive? 

A: Bumble bees are typically very docile insects but can become defensive if necessary, so if you encounter a bumble bee or a nest, move slowly and with caution. 

Q: What do bumble bees eat?

A: Bumble bees feed on nectar from flowering plants. 

Q: Do bumble bees pollinate?

A: Bumble bees are excellent pollinators, largely because of their ability to “buzz pollinate” plants with hard-to-release pollen by vibrating their bodies. 

Q: Do bumble bees make honey?

A: While bumble bees do collect nectar from plants, it is not converted into honey. 

Q: Are bumble bees endangered?

A: The bumble bee population has altered over the past 70 years and continues to decline.

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