bumble bee

Bumblebees - A Complete Guide

Bumblebees are a favorite of the bee species. They’ve got a reputation for being less threatening (or frightening) than honeybees, and almost everyone thinks they’re cute. I guess when you’re fat and fuzzy, you can get away with anything.

Sweet as they may be, various species of bumblebee have made it onto the endangered species list. Some people don’t take them seriously, and I’ve found that their charm often works against them. I am about to change that in this guide, by giving bumblebees the respect and attention that they deserve.

Where Do Bumblebees Come From?

Bumblebees are found across a good portion of the Earth. They are most abundant in the northern hemisphere but span across the Americas, Europe, and Southeast Asia.

There are at least 255 species of bumblebee, but it’s unclear where exactly they originate from. The most accepted theory is that they’re indigenous to North America.

Bumblebees aren’t found in most of Africa and Oceania, with the exceptions of the Sahara and New Zealand. In the case of the latter, they were introduced there and don’t occur naturally. Bumblebees prefer cool habitats that are open and rich with flowers.

A fun fact is that they were named for the noise they make. In fact, their name could literally be translated as “buzzing bee”. Isn’t that cute?

How to Identify a Bumblebee

It seems as though this should be as easy as asking yourself “Is it a big bee?”, but that’s not the case. Yes, their size is the most obvious trait, but we can’t rely on their scale alone. Carpenter bees are roughly the same size, and the two could easily be confused.

Carpenter Bee

More importantly, the biggest bee in the world dwarfs the bumblebee in comparison, although this particular species is extremely rare. So, how do we identify bumblebees?

What Do Bumblebees Look Like?

Bumblebees differ in appearance, based on their gender and rank in the nest. These variations are mostly subtle and not noticeable without paying extreme attention to detail. Their appearance also varies depending on the species. So, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick to a generic description of these bees.

The easiest way to identify a bumblebee is, ironically, to look at its bum. Vastly different from black-bottomed carpenter bees and honeybees, bumblebees have lighter colored rears.

There are three kinds of bumblebees; white-tailed (most common), red-tailed, and uniform-tailed, in which case the bumblebee’s bottom is the same color as its abdomen, usually a pale ginger color.

Another blatant identifying trait is its fur. All bees are fuzzy—it’s one of the best ways to tell them apart from other insects—but bumblebees are particularly fluffy. Their hairs are longer and appear softer than others. Their fur is also brighter and more vivid than that of other bees.

top of bombus affinis bumblebee

You can also spot a bumblebee by its stripes. They typically only have up to three thick yellow bands. Carpenters are segmented and are half black, half yellow; while honeybees have many thin bands.

Lastly, there’s size. You can’t identify a bumblebee by its size alone, but it still factors in. The average bumblebee worker measures about half an inch long. Drones are only slightly bigger than workers, and the queens can grow to up to a full inch.

Bumblebee Behaviour

If you want a more intricate look at bumblebees, your best bet is to study their personalities. They share a few traits with honeybees but have almost nothing in common with carpenter bees.

Bumblebee Societies

Bumblebees, like honeybees, live in colonies. The colony revolves around a queen, who has female workers, and drones for reproduction.

The queens are the founders of bumblebee colonies. At the beginning of spring, after a long hibernation, a bumblebee queen will search for—and then settle into—a new nest. She will build a nest with wax, and use it to store food and lay her eggs.

bumble bee ground nest

Did you know that bumblebee queens sit on their eggs to keep them warm? Once her eggs are laid, she incubates them by perching on them and shivering. This energy creates warmth in her muscles which then spreads to her eggs.

Her first batch of eggs will be fertilized from the summer before, and so will hatch into workers only. Once her new colony is established, the queen bumblebee will not leave her nest again.

When her first hatchlings grow into fully-fledged workers, she will lay more eggs. These are the drones. New queens only hatch before winter, when they mate, hibernate, and start the cycle anew.

The workers are responsible for the overall well-being of the colony. They do most of the work by foraging, cleaning, and protecting it—just the same as with honeybees. Likewise, the drones don’t do much in a bumblebee colony. Once they are old enough to mate, they leave the nest to mate with other queens and die soon after.

Bumblebee Homes

Bumblebees live in nests rather than hives. Although they’re not quite as impressive as honeybee hives, they still have a fascinating sense of order that can be a spectacle to see or discover.

How to Spot a Bumblebee Nest

Bumblebee nests are not easy to see because they’re typically hidden, either underground or out of sight. There are a number of spots that you can find them in, though. This includes:

  • Under compost heaps or natural debris
  • Beneath tall grass
  • Inside trees trunks
  • In various holes or openings of your house
  • Under your shed
  • Inside bird boxes
  • Within rodent holes

Bumblebees prefer to nest in dark and dry areas, away from direct sunlight. They usually nest inside, under, or behind some sort of shield from external elements, and their nests don’t hang as beehives do.

bumble bees inside some wood
CC Image courtesy of allan_harris

From the outside, bumblebee nests appear messy and disorganized. They look like clumps of wax that have been randomly stuck together. They’re not as aesthetically pleasing, but they have the same function as honeybee hives.

Bumblebee nests are made from wax pots, which they use to store their nectar and pollen, and raise their young. Since their colonies are nowhere near as big as honeybee hives, they do not need the stern structure of the hexagonal cells we are all familiar with.

bumblebee nest

This doesn’t mean that there is no order though. A study found that brood cells closer to the center of the nest receive more nutrition than those further away. This means that those bees will grow bigger and stronger, and could be favored by the nest as a whole.

Another difference between bumblebee nests and honeybee hives is that the nests are only temporary. Bumblebee colonies will die off or disperse annually. The queens are the only ones that will live long enough to see winter.

After her hibernation, the queen will build a new nest from scratch. Although they won’t return to their old home, they may just settle into the same area.

Bumblebee Habits

To become fully acquainted with the bumblebee, there are a few more topics that we need to cover. Here are some answers to the most popular FAQ regarding our fluffy flying friends.

Do Bumblebees Make Honey?

Bumblebees, in a technical sense, don’t make honey—not if you’re thinking of honey as we know it. Honeybees are the only species that produce honey and we harvest it.

Honey is produced by honeybees to last them through the winter. It’s used as a preservative for their pollen. Since bumblebees do not live through winter—save for the queens, who hibernate—they have no need for these stores.

bumble bee nest entrance hole
Bumblebee nest entrance

Bumblebees still collect, store and feed off of nectar, but it’s not enough for beekeepers to bother with. For this reason, even though we could harvest bumblebee nectar and process it into honey, we would rather turn to honeybees. It’s easier, and we get more from them anyway.

What Do Bumblebees Eat?

There is no difference between the diets of bumblebees and honeybees. As mentioned above, bumblebees eat nectar, and they eat pollen too. They get all of their nutrients from their vegetarian diets.

bumblebee
CC Image courtesy of mattx27

Bumblebees have a preference for pollen. In fact, It’s been noted that bumblebees are actually better pollinators than honeybees are. That’s because they ultimately drop (or spread) more pollen than they can eat, carry, or save.

Are Bumblebees Aggressive?

Some people are intimidated by bumblebees because of their size. Is there any real reason to fear them more than your average honeybee?

That depends on how you look at it. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees can sting you multiple times. This could make them more of a threat than honeybees, yes, but very rarely will they actually attack.

bumblebee stinger

Only the females have stingers. Since queens typically stay indoors after laying their eggs; the only bumblebees you really have to worry about are the workers. Even so, bumblebees are quite passive, and won’t sting unless provoked or threatened. It’s safe to say that if you mind your own beeswax, you won’t get hurt.

Bumblebee Conservation

I mentioned earlier that some species of bumblebees have made it onto the endangered species list. There are many factors that can cause bumblebee numbers to decline. Some of them are natural and inevitable. Others are our fault.

Bumblebee Predators

You wouldn’t suspect it by looking at them, but bumblebees have quite a few predators that they have to defend against. Their list of enemies includes:

  • Birds (particularly bee-eaters, tits, and flycatchers)
  • Robber flies (who trap bumblebees in their wings)
  • Crab spiders, that hunt foraging bumblebees
  • Wasps (beewolves to be exact)
  • Skunks
  • Bears
  • Badgers
  • Minx
  • Weasels
  • Shrews
  • Frogs
  • Hedgehogs
  • Field mice
  • Foxes

The bigger animals that you see on that list will raid bumblebee nests in search of nectar and wax. Often the bees get thrown in as the cherry on top.

Their most problematic predator, however, is actually a parasite. The wax moth is responsible for wiping out about 80 percent of bumblebee nests.

Bumblebees are herbivorous and are not predatory to anything else in turn.

Disease

It’s odd to think about, but bees can fall ill just as we can. A problem in bee colonies is that diseases can easily contaminate and tear through the whole colony. As if it weren’t bad enough that disease can debilitate bees, it can also cause colony collapse disorder.

In 2014, after investigating a decline in bumblebee numbers, it was discovered that in at least two cases, bumblebees had contracted deadly viruses from honeybees.

There are many pathogens that can affect the health of bees, and disease can be carried through parasites or even by bees of different colonies feeding on the same sources.

Humans

As the world turned its attention to honeybees after talks of their rapidly declining numbers spread and we feared a bee apocalypse, a disturbing fact was uncovered. Honeybees aren’t endangered (yet), but bumblebees are. Some are even critically endangered.

This is largely due to human interference. Here’s what we’re doing wrong:

Pesticides

Pesticides have come under fire recently, as they have been pinpointed as the leading cause of bumblebee endangerment. Since then, an effort has been made to either reduce, remove, or alter the impact of pesticides on bees, but has it made a difference?

For the most part, it’s still being investigated, but leading entomologists are on board with (and calling for more) research. Recent findings have shown that pesticides, regardless of the changes, could still negatively impact the bumblebees.

Two even suggested that replacement pesticides, meant to conserve bumblebees, could have just as bad an effect on their health.

Other studies state that pesticides may not instantly affect bees, but over time they can reduce colony numbers and performance, most particularly in the case of bumblebees.

Removal of Bumblebees

Another threat to bumblebee numbers is the widespread fear of them. Often, people discover nests in or around their homes, panic, and call in pest removal to get rid of them.

It’s understandable that some people may not be happy to see bumblebees nesting around the house. Allergies, having children or pets around that may unintentionally interfere with them, or even harboring a fear of them, are all good enough reasons to want them gone. They don’t justify killing them, though.

Bumblebees will rarely cause any problems for humans, and most people don’t know that they can be relocated instead of fumigated. If pest control is called in, chances are that they offer a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Remember, bumblebees abandon their nests and never return once they’re gone.

It’s better to call in beekeepers if you have a bumblebee “problem.” They can safely relocate the bees without harming them.

Environmental Changes

Another factor in the decline of bumblebees is climate change. Fair enough, we are not solely responsible for global warming, but our industrialism has caused it to speed up at an alarming rate.

Global warming causes confusing weather patterns and has a domino effect, in which it alters the times at which crops grow. Plants blossom according to the season and the weather conditions.

Changes in climate may cause them to bloom early, and bees (unable to adapt) could very well miss out on vital feeding opportunities. This causes shortages of food in the bee colonies, which could even drive them to food sources that are toxic for them, adding to the problem.

One study highlights the effect of pollen shortages in honeybees. These consequences naturally affect all pollinators, including bumblebees, butterflies, wasps, and beetles.

As always, there’s also our direct impact on the habitats of bumblebees. Deforestation, urbanization, and industrialism negatively affect all bees as they find they have fewer and fewer places to live.

Not only do we damage or destroy their natural habitats, but we also remove their food sources as well.

One of the problems is that beekeepers can make a difference in honeybee conservation by building and maintaining hives for them to thrive in. With bumblebees, however, beekeepers rarely intervene beyond setting up adequate spots for them to nest in.

bumble bee nest
CC Image courtesy of orangeaurochs

Because their colonies are so small and their lifespans so short, it’s difficult to increase their numbers. Their decline is a bigger problem than you might think. As I mentioned before, bumblebees are better pollinators than honeybees.

If they vanish completely, they will most certainly take us with them.

The Humblebee

Bumblebees are just trying to mind their own business, live their little lives to the fullest, and contribute to the environment. Humans have made a massive impact on their numbers.

It’s our responsibility to take care of them and ensure that they thrive. Recently, they have become endangered, and if we don’t act soon, we could stand to lose them forever.

They may not be as popular or cared for as the honeybee, but bumblebees are a vital (and beautiful) part of our ecosystem. Now you know more about them, and will hopefully be able to appreciate them more. If all else fails, just look at them. How could anyone ever disrespect something that cute?

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