A Brief Guide to Bumblebees

Due to the loss of their habitat, the damage caused by monocrop agriculture and the effects of pesticides, bumblebees have garnered a lot of media attention in recent years. We have seen a marked decline in the number of bees across the US and in other areas of the world and this could affect our entire economy. How? Well aside from producing honey, bumblebees are important pollinators to make our plant life propagate and grow.

There are almost 20,000 bee species and they vary in many fundamental ways, including: preferred habitats, pollination habits, physical characteristics, aggression and more. Examining every type of bee is well beyond the scope of this article. But, we can take a closer look at the most common bumblebee types that will be familiar to most people.

How to Identify a Bumblebee

Identyfying a bumblebeeThere are more than 255 bumblebee species and there is a great variation in their sizes. A large queen of the Bombus dahlbomii species can be up to 1.6” long which is 3-4 time longer than most American bumblebee types. There are two easy ways to identify a specific bumblebee species, they are: the number of bands on the thorax and the color of the tail.

A check with an online database should give you the exact species name if you’re curious. There are some standard traits that all bumblebees share, they are fuzzy, they have short wings and they are a little larger on average than a honey bee. A bumblebee will not produce as much honey as a honeybee but they are excellent pollinators for plants.

Where Bumblebees Nest

The bumble bee nesting sites are found in the wild because they are not domesticated. These insects are extremely social and a nest will typically be a home for hundreds of bumblebees. This is very different to the domesticated honeybee hives that are usually a home for tens of thousands of hyper-social bees.

The bumblebee nests are usually located in holes in the ground or burrows that they have dug over time. When winter arrives, the sole survivor of the bumblebee colony is the queen. She will hibernate during the colder weather and emerge in spring to create the colony again. The honey produced by bumblebees is exclusively used to feed the colony.

Are Bumblebees Good Pollinators?

Bumblebees are better pollinators than honeybees because there are more varieties within the species. As we mentioned earlier, the bumblebees can vary a great deal in size and this will affect the length of their tongues. This significantly increases the kinds of flowering plants that they can feed from as they collect honey for their colony.

A bumblebee is a fast-working insect with a large body that allows them to transport large loads. They are also pretty smart when it comes to extracting pollen from flowers and some even specialize in certain types and leave the others to different bumblebees.

This increases the chances of cross-pollination which is especially important for fruit bearing trees. Bumblebees are consistent workers with resistance to cold, rain, low-light, and inclement weather conditions.

8 Interesting Facts About Bumblebees

Fact # 1

If a bumblebee stings you, it will not die, this is a trait found in honeybees.

Fact #2

Bumblebees live on a dense and protein rich diet of nectar and pollen. This may sound like heaven for a honey lover, but this insect has a rough start in life. The initial meal of the adult bumblebee is the feces of other colony members.

This may sound gross but it serves an important purpose for the individual and the rest of the colony. The feces contain bacteria that boosts the immune system of the bumblebee to protect it from parasites and other microbial threats.

Fact #3

Bumblebees only make sufficient honey to feed themselves and there isn’t enough to harvest for our use.

Fact #4

When a bumblebee has collected enough nectar and pollen from the flowers it must return to the nest in order to feed. According to studies, this can be up to 6.2 miles (10 km).

Fact #5

A bumblebee can forage for food at temperatures down to as low as 0ºC because they can keep themselves warm. The bee can vibrate its flight muscles much like we run our hands together and there is a surprising amount of bumblebee activity in mountainous areas.

The Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Mackenzie Mountains has identified 13 bumblebee species. One of them is the rare Western Bumblebee which has been listed as a protected species by COSEWIC.

Fact #6

Bumble BeeOne of the more interesting facts about bumblebees is the misconception that they are not aerodynamically capable of flight and yet they fly! But, recent research has solved many of the mysteries about how the small wings keep the bumblebee airborne. The National Academy of Sciences conducted a study in 2005 which was published in their journal later that year.

This study used high-speed photography techniques to discover that bumblebees flap their wings forwards and backward and not in an up and down motion. This means that the bumblebee flies almost like a helicopter rather than like a bird.

In 2011 a follow up article published in the Live Science journal Professor Michael Dickinson and expert in biology and insect flight had more information to share. It seems that the wing action of the bumblebee also creates tiny air vortices which act like little hurricanes. This lowers the air pressure around the bee to help it stay airborne despite its stubby wings.

Fact #7

Many bumblebee types are listed as vulnerable, threatened, and endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. This organization has a “Red List” which includes rare species, such as the Variable Cuckoo Bumblebee and the Rusty Patched Bumblebee.

Federal protection has been extended to these species but there is still a lot of confusion about their population decline. Various theories about pollution, global warming, a lack of flowers, or sickness that affects bees are under examination.

Fact #8

At the end of the growing season, the bumblebee colony will die and only the queen will remain to restart a fresh colony in spring. This is very different from a honeybee hive where the queen and a few select retainers will hibernate during the winter months.