Honey bees and bumblebees are the two most well-known bee species. Many people assume that the two live very similarly or that what is true of honey bees is also true of bumble bees, but they have some fascinating differences. Read on to find out how bumblebees differ from honey bees.
Bumblebees and honey bees both live in colonies. They each have a body of female worker bees, a single egg-producing queen and a number of male drone bees. However, bumblebee colonies are annual and die out at the end of summer, while honey bee colonies can live for decades. For this reason, bumblebee colonies never have time to grow very large tend to be small in comparison to honey bees. The most populous bumblebee colonies max out at around 250 individuals, which is nothing for a honey bee colony. The average honey bee colony boasts 50,000 bees.
Queens & Mating
As summer comes to a close, bumblebee colonies begin to make new queens. As with honey bees, the queens leave the colony to mate with males from other nests, but bumblebee queens are much less promiscuous! While a honey bee queen may mate with as many as 40 males, the bumblebee queen typically mates only with one. After she has mated, the new queen must feed heavily on nectar to prepare herself for hibernation. She hibernates underground and if she survives, she will emerge in spring to start her own colony.
Bumblebee queens must start their colonies from scratch. They don’t have the help of worker bees when they first emerge from hibernation. The duties of establishing a nest fall to the queen alone. She begins by seeking out a suitable nesting site. Most bumblebee species nest underground in old rodent dens, but some will occupy cavities in bird houses or wood piles. Once in her nest, the queen lays her first round of eggs. These eggs will hatch into worker bees who will aid her in foraging and brood rearing. Once she has a big enough workforce, the queen bumblebee retires from forging altogether and performs only the vital task of egg-laying.
As the population of worker bees grows, the queen is able to lay more and more eggs, which will hatch into more worker bees. The body size of worker bees varies dramatically and is determined by how much food they are fed during development. One worker might be ten times bigger than another! It’s believed that their difference in stature is related to the work they do. Larger workers perform most of the foraging, for example, while smaller bees seem to stay in the nest. These bulky workers are able to collect more food, fly in cooler temperatures, and evade more predators than their petite sisters. However, we still don’t fully understand how worker size relates to colony tasks.
At this point, you might be wondering if bumble bees make honey. The answer is, no, but they do collect and store nectar. They build a kind of pot to hold the nectar they gather. This stored food enables new queens to stay in their nests and care for their first batch of young without going hungry. The reason this stored nectar is not considered honey is because its not dehydrated. Bumble bees do not lower the water content of their nectar, like honey bees do. Also, because bumble bee colonies are modest in size and don’t overwinter, they would never store enough nectar for anyone to harvest it.
You might also wonder if bumble bees die after stinging, the way honey bees do. Fortunately for them, the answer is no. Unlike honey bees, bumble bees have smooth stingers that allow them to sting more than once. Although they have this ability, bumble bees tend to be much more docile and will only sting when cornered or if their nest is disturbed. Even if you do make the mistake of upsetting a bumble bee colony, you’ll likely have less stings to show for it because bumble bee nest are smaller and there will be less bees to contend with.
When the media talks about the bees dying, they often focus on honey bees. Although honey bees face many challenges and are experiencing high mortality rates, they are supported by beekeepers and are not considered endangered. By contrast, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee has been added to the Endangered Species List and more than a quarter of North America’s bumblebees are at risk for extinction.
Bumblebee Nest Removal
Beekeepers are sometimes asked to remove bumblebee colonies, but most of us haven’t a clue how to do it. The first challenge is that the nest is usually underground. You can imagine that blindly digging up a bumble bee nest does not often go well. If you try, not only is the nest now covered in soil, the structure is often mystifying to beekeepers and can easily be damaged. Also, with so many differently sized workers in the nest, its easy to leave behind the queen. So, even if you did manage to excavate the nest, you may not get the queen with it.
Sadly, most attempts to transfer bumbles fail. Yet, there is something we beekeepers can do — argue passionately to keep these bumbles where they are! Let the property owners know that bumblebees are annual. The nest will die at the end of summer and is unlikely to give them much trouble because bumblebees are docile and have small nests.
Want to Learn More?
There are estimated to be 250 species of bumblebees around the world. You can learn even more them and find out about other fascinating bee species in my new book: The Little Book of Bees! This illustrated guide is filled with gorgeous water color paintings of bees and loaded with facts. It’s a comprehensive guide to all things bee. From ancient bees, to stingless beekeeping, to medicinal uses for honey— it’s got a little of everything. Click here to find out more.