Because they can appear so similar to honeybees, it’s a common misconception (or assumption) that bumblebees live in hives, but they don’t. Bumblebee nests are quite different from beehives, and understanding them could serve the bumblebees well in their fight against extinction.
What Does the Outside of a Bumblebee Nest Look Like?
Unlike a beehive, which is easily recognizable, bumblebee nests can be tricky to spot. They’re typically formed beneath compost, grass, or other natural debris. They can also be tucked away inside trees, bird boxes, or even in the various nooks and crannies of your home or shed.
Rodent holes are another common place for bumblebees to build their nests.
I think it’s safe to say that bumblebee nests are the exact opposite of what we imagine a bee’s home should look like. For one, though they are truly wonderful to behold, they’re not the most attractive habitats—even more so if you are trypophobic and can’t bear the sight of irregular patterns.
The nests might seem a bit… basic. Colonies are much smaller than honey bees, and the nesting is annual. Once they’ve served their purpose, the bees will pack up and leave. When they have the use for one again, they nest from scratch.
These nests are not easy to describe, because they vary. Unlike hives, they are not regular, and—superficially speaking—do not conform to any single design or pattern. The nests are somewhat disordered and look more like clumps of eggs stuck together with goo than combs.
Although untidy, they’re clean—bumblebees will deposit their dead and old larvae outside the nest, to prevent diseases from spreading inside it.
The nests don’t hang and are more often than not concealed behind (or beneath) some sort of foliage or guard for protection against weather conditions and predators.
Sunlight can cause overheating within the nest, so they’ll usually be in the shade, or somewhere relatively dark. Taking this into consideration, it’s much easier to identify one by activity than appearance.
If you’re determined to find a nest, the easiest thing to do would be to follow the bees to it. Bumblebees return to their nests after feeding, so if you catch one having lunch, watch where it goes—it could take you straight to the nest.
Listen for bees too. Bumblebees congregate around their nests, and if a nest is concealed nearby, you should be able to hear it even if there are no signs of one. Don’t be alarmed if you catch a swarm of bees around a nest—they’re usually males and can’t sting. That said, do be careful if you approach one.
What Does the Inside of a Bumblebee Nest Look Like?
The interior of a bumblebee nest is much easier to describe. Although their designs vary from colony to colony, their behavior is almost uniform. It begins with their mating.
Once a queen bumblebee comes out of dormancy, she will find a place to nest. She will build cells from wax and then lay her fertilized eggs in them. Not all bumblebees will cap these cells with wax, though some do for extra protection. The nest itself is built from brood.
It’s been found that the location of cells impacts the size of the bee that emerges from it. Cells closer to the center receive more nutrition, and so the bees will be bigger. Cells further behind are fed more sparingly.
When these eggs hatch into females, bumblebee colonies become similar to honeybee hives, with workers keeping things in order by nurturing the young, protecting the nest, and foraging.
Now that there are workers, the queen will return to laying eggs—this time drones—so that the colony can develop and grow in size.
Bumblebees also produce honey for their own consumption. They store their excess nectar and pollen in wax pots around the nest.
How Do Bumblebees Choose a Location for Their Nests?
Species is the biggest factor in nest conditions, and there is no single answer to where bumblebees prefer settling. That said, the majority of bumblebees will nest in dark, dry spots that are unoccupied and concealed.
As mentioned, bumblebee nests first take form when a queen seeks a suitable environment for her eggs. Queens mate in the fall and store their fertilized eggs throughout the winter. Spring is the house-hunting season for bumblebee queens, and their flight patterns while searching for a nest are easily noticeable.
The queen determines whether or not a spot is viable by scouting its surroundings and using her sense of smell. If she finds a potential opening, she will then dig a little deeper by going into whichever hole, space, tunnel, or habitat she has found. If she likes what she sees, she will settle. If not, she will resume her mission and continue searching until she finds a spot that is perfect for her.
Bumblebees, regardless of where their nest is—in a tree, under grass, or hidden in your shed—will always camp close to (even on or under) the ground, away from direct sunlight.
Although their nests are annual, bumblebee queens will never return to an old one after they have moved on. They may return to the same area, but they won’t re-populate in a nest they’ve already abandoned.
How Are Bumblebee Nests Made?
Unlike carpenter bees, bumblebees don’t burrow. They’d rather take advantage of any holes or gaps formed by other creatures. They also don’t have the anatomy to design intricate nests using what’s around them, so they usually settle into spaces that can already accommodate them.
They may collect small bits of foliage or debris, but they don’t build with it. It’s one of the reasons why bumblebee nests are so untidy.
Bumblebees construct their nests from wax and use it to hold their brood together. There is no order to how they do this, and it’s another justification for why the nests appear so disorganized.
As for the wax itself, it’s not much different from the wax of honey bees. Queen bumblebees secrete it from their abdomen, and it’s used to protect larvae, and they form pots to store their nectar and pollen in.
Bumblebees don’t construct honeycombs because they do not need to store nectar for extended periods of time. Even if they had a need for combs, it would be a waste of energy to build them, since the nest will be abandoned in the winter anyway.
How Many Bumblebees Will a Nest Hold?
Bumblebee colonies differ in size, and their nests can house anything from a mere 20 bees to communities as large as a thousand. On average though, bumblebee nest populations range between 50 and 400 bees.
The demographics of the colonies are interesting too. The queens establish the colonies, so there is usually only one. Female workers are born first and begin maintaining the nest as soon as they are fledged.
Once a nest is up and running, drones and new queens are introduced to it. Drones, as with honeybees, do not contribute much to bumblebee nests and are brought in to reproduce. Drones and new queens will mate towards the end of summer.
Once a new queen has mated, she will return to the nest to feed. The drones, however, rarely return. All but the queens will die as winter sets in. The queen will hibernate, and when she emerges in spring, she finds a new place to settle, and the cycle continues.
Threats to Bumblebee Nests
Even though bumblebees take precautions and tend to hide their nests away, there are still a few risks that they have to face. They have many natural predators.
Robber flies prey on bumblebees by trapping them in their wings. Crab spiders have been observed hunting bumblebees while they forage on flowers. Beewolves—a type of wasp—enjoy attacking foraging bumblebees, and hunt them by paralyzing them, capturing them and storing the bees back in their hives.
Certain birds are also known to hunt bumblebees, including bee-eaters (no surprise there), tits, and spotted flycatchers.
As for attacks on the nests, there are a few creatures who will raid bumblebee nests in search of brood, wax, and nectar.
Badgers, bears, skunks, and minx are major threats to bumblebee nests, as they will eat anything and everything in sight—even the bees. To a lesser degree, weasels, hedgehogs, foxes, and field mice are known to attack nests as well.
Threats of a different kind are diseases. Again, just as with honeybees, bumblebee colonies can be wiped out if diseases spread through them. In 2014, it was discovered that diseases known to affect honeybees had infected bumblebee colonies too.
Parasites are also a problem, and it’s believed that more bumblebees are killed by parasites than by predators. The wax moth is the primary culprit in this, responsible for the destruction of an estimated 80 percent of bumblebee nests.
Lastly, there’s human interference. Although we don’t usually harvest honey from bumblebees and prefer to stay out of their way, their tendency to shack up under sheds or in people’s homes can spell trouble for them.
Many bumblebee nests have been disrupted, or even destroyed, by unwelcoming humans. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the endangered status of at least seven species of bumblebee.
What to Do If You Find a Bumblebee Nest
Bumblebee nests are well hidden, so simply stumbling upon one is not something that is likely to happen. Still, they do settle in our sheds, gardens, or even homes, so it’s not an impossibility. You could also be lucky (or unlucky) enough to come across one outdoors in nature, so here’s what to do:
Don’t Disturb the Nest
Bumblebees are not as aggressive as honeybees, but that does not mean they’re harmless. They can, and will, sting you if they feel threatened—and they can sting multiple times, so watch out.
Bumblebees build nests to protect their queen, food, and larvae. If you interfere with it, or if they sense that you’re going to interfere with it, they could easily become defensive and attack you.
If you want to observe the nest, don’t touch anything and try not to breathe or make noise too close to it. Keep your distance for your own safety.
Leave Them Be
Or should I say leave them bee?
Bumblebee nests are temporary and will fall away without intervention within a few months. If they aren’t causing you hassle, and are not a threat to you, it’s best to just leave them alone. Once winter comes, most of the colony will die off and the queen will leave the nest, most likely never to return.
Very rarely is there ever any need to kill them, but it is understandable if they are in your way or you’re just not comfortable with having them around.
If that’s the case, and you don’t want to wait for the nest to fall away on its own, moving them is possible—though absolutely not recommended. Bumblebees will not cause damage to your home, shed, or garden. If you insist on getting rid of them though, please follow this advice:
- It’s always better to call in a beekeeper (not pest control) to do this for you. Most pest control companies, or indeed fumigators, will destroy the nests and kill the bees, which is totally unnecessary.
- If you insist on relocating them yourself (please don’t), note that moving their nest will aggravate them and it’s of utmost importance to protect yourself from stings. Make sure that none of your skin is exposed and that your face is covered well.
- Wait until night. The bees will be at rest and it will be easier to move them because they won’t fly in the dark.
- Bright lights will disturb them, so if you can’t see what you’re doing, use a red light if possible.
- If there is a nest underground, digging to get to it is sure to upset them.
- If they have nested inside a bird box or other container, blocking the entrance to keep them inside will make it easier to move them. Just remember to set them free when you are done relocating them.
- Entrances to your shed or other areas where they might be bothering you can also be blocked to redirect their path so it’s out of your way. Give them an alternative and they will use it. Again, though, please don’t trap them inside.
Helping Bumblebees Nest
You can create the perfect spot for bumblebees to nest in if you’re feeling up to helping them out. There are many ways to make a comfortable and useful box for bumblebees to settle inside, and they often require little resources and even less skill.
The design of it can be a process, but there are various online resources (like this simple video) that could give you a hand if you don’t know where to start.
Nest boxes can be made from wood, stone, styrofoam, ceramic, cardboard, or even flowerpots. You can add wood chips, hay, Rockwool, dried leaves and other sorts of dry material for the bees to nestle into. You might need mesh as well, to keep the bees away from you, and the predators away from the bees.
You can also leave treats inside the box. The bees will be happy for sugar water, though some people add diluted honey.
Don’t take it personally if bumblebees reject your box. They’re fussy about their spots and it could take a few attempts before you create something they’ll be attracted to. If you are determined, you could force bees into it, but they might not like it. If they want to leave, you should let them.