Bumblebees are quite different from honeybees or carpenter bees—the way they live and how they cast themselves vary. We’ll help you search your perimeters for that bumblebee nest. We’ll also give you some advice on what to do if you find one.
What Do Bumblebees Live In?
Usually, when we think of bees and where they live, we tend to imagine a beehive. Bumblebees, however, like to do things a little differently. Bumblebees have very different lifestyles from most other bees.
Carpenter bees, for instance, live in wood, where they carve tunnels for their eggs and larvae. Honeybees spend most of their time improving their hive to make more room for honey. Bumblebees also produce honey, but their main purpose is pollinating.
Although bumblebees can live either above or below the ground, most prefer the underground. The bumblebee queen is responsible for finding the perfect spot to lay her eggs. It really depends on the type of bumblebee.
There are some queens who find it better to nest in an abandoned burrow, under a shed or in compost piles. Others may find an old bird box, a hole in a tree, or perhaps even in tall grass.
After the newly woken queen has found her spot, she’ll venture out to find pollen and nectar. She brings this back to the site and creates a wax-like substance to place her eggs in. This is the base of the nest and as soon as the first batch of bees is old enough, they then take over.
How Do Bumblebees Choose Where to Make a Nest?
Once spring brings about warmer temperatures, the bumblebee queen emerges from diapause. She’s on a tight schedule to find a suitable nesting place for her year on the throne. But first, she needs to fill up on nectar and pollen.
After being asleep for so many months, her energy stores are drained and at first, she can’t fly. Her flight muscles need to be around 86 degrees Fahrenheit for her wings to function. She reaches this temperature by shivering, which warms up the flight muscles. This takes around five minutes at an air temperature of 55 degrees.
Her first mission is to feed. When she finds a flower, she quickly feeds and is thus ready to fly further, in search of a new home. To do this, she uses her senses of sight and smell to navigate and properly investigate the surrounding environment. If you pay close attention, it’s surprisingly easy to spot a nest-searching queen. She’ll fly in a specific zig-zag pattern, very close to the ground.
She’ll likely search for spots with a concealed entrance where it feels warmer and cozier, but away from direct sunlight. There also needs a nearby food source, for essential provisions to be readily available as she is beginning to develop her new colony.
Nest Preferences of Bumblebees
One of the main differences between bumblebees and, let’s say, carpenter bees is that bumblebees are limited when gathering nest materials. This may sound a little bit odd seeing that carpenter bees, and even honeybees, readily build their hives from nothing.
Bumblebees, however, need to find a place where most of the supplies are already in place or within easy reach.
The queen typically looks for a spot where there are large amounts of moss, perhaps leaves, old tall grass, or maybe some fur. When she builds her nest, she can quickly rake these items together to make a small den.
Bumblebees like it cozy and messy, they aren’t the tidiest bees in the world. This is also one way to distinguish their nest from the honeybee’s, for example, but more on that later.
Once she has found a potential spot, she’ll hover closer to get a better look. She might even enter the hole to investigate further. If this isn’t it, she’ll simply continue—but if it proves suitable, she’ll stay.
Sometimes it happens that the queen faces competition. If other searching queens deem the same spot useful, they’ll likely fight for it.
It can also happen that she gets a visit from a cuckoo bumblebee. These are not your usual bumblebee. They come from the genus Psithyrus and are known as social parasites.
These don’t build their own nests, instead, they find a queen bumblebee and take over her den. The cuckoo bumblebee depends entirely on other bees since it can’t produce wax or honey to build nests or feed its brood. These encounters sometimes result in a battle to the death.
Why There Are Less Suitable Nesting Spots
Because the bumblebee can’t gather all the supplies for a nest, it depends a lot on finding a suitable location. Unfortunately, many are being uprooted, including their foraging spots as well.
We’re talking about places such as hedgerows and wildflower landscapes. The lack of hedgerows means fewer hiding spots for smaller mammals, such as rodents. This, in turn, means fewer burrows for the bumblebees to take over.
Wildflowers provide much of the needed pollen and nectar for the early emerging queens. Unfortunately, many places where these are located are being excavated.
What Do Bumblebee Nests Look Like?
Bumblebees are social insects, much like the honeybee and carpenter bee. They live in colonies, but these are far smaller than those of honeybees.
A bumblebee’s lifespan is much shorter than that of a honeybee, too. The average honeybee queen can live up to three or four years in the same colony. A bumblebee queen will only survive a year, and the workers, only a couple of months at most.
This constricts the size of the colony as many bees die before a great number is established. The usual number of bumblebees within a nest is approximately 50 to 400 bees. Some do report having had as many as 1,700, but this is generally in captivity.
This is also why bumblebee nests are so much smaller and therefore harder to find. If you do manage to find one, you’re lucky. Not everyone gets to see a bumblebee nest up close—but, of course, not everyone wants to see them up close.
To give you an idea of what a bumblebee nest looks like, you’ll have to imagine a rodent’s burrow. A small hole or dent in the ground covered by grass or moss.
Inside the nest, things likely look a bit disorganized. Remember earlier I said that bumblebees like things messy and cozy? Well, their way of arranging the nest is a bit different from how honeybees do it.
Taking a look inside a honeybee hive, you’ll see all the hexagonal cells arranged in an organized order. Everything is space-efficient, so to speak, so they can store as much honey and brood as possible. The bumblebee’s nest, however, looks very jumbled in comparison.
Everything is on top of each other and the cells where they store brood, honey, and pollen are one big mess. The queen sits in the middle of it all, where she lays most of the new eggs.
The bumblebee workers try to keep the mess tidy and free of disease. Every time a bumblebee gets sick or dies, they carry them outside the nest. This is also one of the telltale signs of a den—when you see dead bees in the grass, you’re close.
What to Do If You Find a Bumblebee Nest
Bumblebee nests, as I said above, are not easy to find. If you do find one, it’s best to leave it be. Bumblebees are famous for their gentle nature, but they will get defensive if you get too close.
Sometimes, the bumblebee queen may decide to locate her nest quite close to humans. If you’re allergic or have kids, it’s best to try and move it. Getting too close to their nest, breathing on it, or in its direction, can trigger a cloud of males to appear.
Don’t worry, bumblebees don’t swarm and likely won’t come after you, but they may sting if you don’t move away.
If the nest is too close for comfort, call a professional who can come and remove it. Once it’s removed, make sure you clean the area with disinfectant.
Bees, in general, navigate with their sense of smell, and other bees will likely find the nest and settle in. Clean the area, and seal cracks and crevices, to avoid this.
One of the worst things you can do is interfere with the nest. Removing its cover, poking it with a stick, or trying to step on it will only get you stung.
Bumblebees are very important for our environment. They pollinate flowers and vegetables, among other plants, so killing them or destroying their nest is a bad idea.
If the den is in the corner of your yard, or another place where they don’t pose a threat to you, just leave it. Bumblebees don’t live for very long and the colony will disappear as soon as the weather gets colder.
Bumblebees are famous for their gentle nature. They don’t live in huge colonies and finding where bumblebees live can be a difficult task. Their nests are usually underground in a rodent’s den, but if you do manage to find one, leave it be, if possible.