Bumblebees – A Quick Guide

From the Bombus genus, meaning “humming” or “buzzing” in Ancient Greek, bumblebees are social insects. They are often large, hairy bees that represent roughly 250 species. Their range spreads all across the Northern hemisphere, but also includes South America. Bumblebees have been introduced to New Zealand and Tasmania as well. These large social bees can come in a variety of colors and can have red, white, and orange on their bodies. They are easily recognizable and well-loved for their fuzzy appearance and docile behavior. 

Do bumblebees sting? 

When feeling threatened or in need of defending their nest, a female bumble bee may be inclined to sting. Honey bees have barbed stingers that will catch on to skin and will be the death of the bee, but bumble bees have smooth stingers. This allows them to sting multiple times and will not result in the bee’s death. Male bumble bees, known as drones, are unable to sting. Since the stinger itself is a modified ovipositor that the males entirely lack, they do not have a stinger but will threaten potential trespassers by flying into their face as a warning. 

Do bumblebees attack people? 

Usually when someone gets too close to the hive, bumble bees may feel threatened and will warn the intruder that they’re in the bees’ territory. A sting or two may occur if there seems to be a real threat. A full on attack from a bumble bee hive is rare, but it can happen if someone disturbs the nest, say by breaking in or doing damage to it. 

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Do bumblebees sting dogs? 

As mentioned, these social bees are quite docile and are unlikely to sting a target without warning. That being said, a particularly curious pup that decides to investigate a bumble bee nest may face the business end of a stinger. Most dogs will be able to detect warnings from a nest of bees that they should stay away, but bee stings are not unheard of. Your dog might yelp and be in pain until the sting heals, but luckily the venom will not cause much harm. A visit to the vet may only be necessary if a major attack has occurred and the dog has suffered a large number of stings. 

What do bumblebees eat? 

The bumblebee diet consists of pollen and nectar collected from various flowers. Pollen is a protein source, while sugar-heavy nectar is an excellent source of energy. The bumblebee also has a long tongue, called a proboscis, which it can use to reach deep into a flower to reach the nectar glands. Their proboscis on honey bees is shorter, so they will steer clear of flowers that they cannot drink from. The queen bee will feed almost entirely on pollen; she needs the protein to lay eggs. The workers, on the other hand, mainly drink nectar so they have enough energy to fly out and forage. 

Do bumblebees pollinate? 

It may be a surprise to learn that not all bees pollinate the same way. Honey bees will collect pollen from flowers and store them in pouches on their legs known as pollen baskets. Saliva, or a mixture of saliva and nectar, is used to secure the pollen together and allow it to stay put during the flight home. Bumble bees are much more efficient pollinators because they have something honey bees lack: scopa hairs. These are dense, branched masses of hair usually on the legs or underside of bees that easily collect pollen when brushed against a flower. Bumblebees not only have scopa hairs, but they also pollinate in a different way. Upon finding a flower, the bee latches on tight and vibrates intensely to dislodge pollen from the anthers. Known as “buzz pollination”, certain flowers such as those on tomatoes can only be pollinated in this method. 

Do bumblebees produce honey? 

Although bees are immediately associated with honey, very few bees actually produce the sweet substance. With over 20’000 species of bees, honey bees are the exception and not the standard. Bumble bees certainly collect nectar to place in stores in the nest, similar to how honey bees will store honey in the hive. The primary difference between the two is water content; nectar in its pure form is liquid, but honey bees work to reduce the water content of the nectar until it is thick and syrupy, at which point it is considered honey. The purpose for creating honey is to have food in the winter for honey bees, as they do not hibernate and will feed on it throughout the cold months. 

Do bumblebees pee and poo? 

Like almost all insects, bumblebees need to remove waste from their bodies after consuming food. Nectar and pollen are consumed, digested, and pooped out. Bees don’t exactly “pee”, however. Ammonia and uric acid need to be removed from the body and are excreted out of an organ called Malphigian tubules. These tubules behave similarly to that of a human kidney. Bees are unique compared to other insects in that by consuming nectar, which has a high volume of liquid, they offset the balance of liquid in their bodies, and thus need to expel it. This is known as “voiding water”, and is similar to urinating but contains no waste products other than pure water. 

Do bumble bees build nests? 

In the spring, a lone queen bee begins the arduous task of building nests. She does so by foraging for nectar and pollen, laying eggs, and building wax cells to store nectar in. Once the first adult bees have hatched, they take over many of these tasks and the queen will not leave the nest from that point. The queen chooses the initial spot to call home, which is often an existing hole in the ground. As the nest expands, the bees may often dig tunnels deeper into the ground which will allow room for larval cells where they can be better protected from predators and the environment. 

There is, as with everything in nature, an exception to the rule. The cuckoo bumble bee is a social parasite, and every female is a queen. She will invade into the nest of another bumble bee species and mimic the queen’s chemical signals, tricking the nest into believing she is their queen. She will then kill their old queen and clear out cells to make room for her eggs, removing larvae and eating the old queen’s eggs along the way. The workers in the hive are fooled by the chemicals and make no attempt to intervene. 

Do bumble bees hibernate? 

Queen bees are the only type of bumble bee to hibernate. The old queen will lay an egg for a new queen in the autumn. One hatched, the young bee will load up on pollen and nectar to reserve the energy as fat before burrowing herself for a long winter. These to-be queens can hibernate for up to nine months in northern locations. Not long after she goes into hibernation, the remainder of the nest and the old queen will perish. She will be entirely alone, and it is up to her to survive the winter and ensure the success of the new nest in the spring. 

Do bumblebees bore in wood? 

Although bumblebees will make their nests in compost piles, under decks, in the ground, and so on, they are not wood-boring insects. Carpenter bees are visually similar to bumblebees and are often confused with them. These bees build their nests by burrowing in dead wood with their mandibles and can be either social or solitary in behavior. The furry bodies of bumblebees allow them to have nests that are slightly more exposed without getting chilled, and their nests are built from wax, which means a wooden nest would be inconvenient to burrow large enough holes to fit all their brood cells in. 

Do bumblebees and honey bees get along? 

Both types of bees can be very territorial and protective of their nests, but honey bees have superior defense in terms of numbers. If either bee is to attempt to enter the nest of the other species, guard bees will usually attack. Away from the hive or nest, bees generally leave one another alone but a form of competition does exist in the gardens and fields. Flowers require pollination in order to produce seeds, so the plants will produce nectar to entice pollinators, and an excess amount of pollen in order to increase the chance that pollen from the anthers of a flower will reach the ovaries. Once they have been successfully pollinated, there is no need to continue producing nectar and pollen, and the plant will divert its energy towards creating seeds. Although certain plants can only be pollinated by bumblebees, the race to get nectar and pollen out of flowers could mean starvation if a mass number of honey bees beat them to it. If a flower is occupied, the bumblebee will have to search elsewhere. The difficulty is that a single hive of honey bees can tens of thousands of workers, so a field of flowers could make finding an unoccupied bloom difficult. 

Do bumblebees dance? 

With the vast numbers of bees within a honey bee hive, communication on where to find food is important, and as such they use the well-known “waggle dance” to inform their fellow workers of pollen and nectar sources. Bumble bees lack the ability to perform these dances, and they do not communicate where to find food to one another; it is up to each individual bee to forage and locate food. 

That said, when a worker returns to the hive with high-quality nectar, she may spend several minutes running around the nest, which may suggest she is encouraging the other bees into foraging by demonstrating her excitement from finding a good source of food. 

How do bumble bees communicate? 

The use of chemical signals is widespread across social bee species, and the bumblebee is no different. Queens will leave pheromones on their eggs in order to identify them as belonging to the nest, and as a way of informing the workers to care for their brood. Interestingly, these pheromones are specific to the species, and not the individual nests. An introduction of eggs from another nest of the same species would yield the same results; the queen would not realize they are not hers. Other pheromones from the queen restrict the ovaries of her workers and prevent them from reproducing. The workers can only produce male eggs, and they are not capable of mating. 

How long do bumblebees live? 

Since the queen bee hibernates throughout the winter and emerges in the spring, the lifespan of a bumblebee queen is about one year, as she will perish by the following winter. Workers can live up to two months; performing the daily hard work of foraging and caring for brood takes a toll on their bodies. Drones have a much shorter lifespan, usually around two weeks, but some studies have indicated that drones could live as long as 90 days under the right conditions, and if they are unable to find a queen to mate with. The act of mating kills the male bee, and since drones lack stingers they are essentially defenseless. Come winter and only the new queen will be in hibernation, and the remaining bees will die. 

Do bumblebees fight each other? 

For the most part, bumblebees will steer clear of one another’s nests, but a fight within a single nest can break out under the right conditions. Bumblebees can detect the chemical composition of the wax in their nests, and an imbalance of chemicals can be an indicator that something is wrong. This usually happens when the nest is overcrowded or the queen is no longer as fertile. When this occurs, bumblebees will fight viciously and can even overthrow their queen and kill her, especially if her fertility has dropped greatly. Another occurrence is when several young queens are laid, and there is a fight for dominance. The winner will then begin fattening up and burrowing for hibernation. 

Do bumblebees fly at night? 

The compound eyes that bumblebees have are helpful for seeing ambient light, allowing them to navigate to and from their nests using the sun as their guide. Bumblebees return to the safety of their nests at night for warmth, and to prevent using energy during a time when it is hard for them to see. 

Do bumblebees have fur? 

Although not necessarily “fur”, bumblebees are extraordinary fuzzy creatures. Their hair allows them to keep warm in cooler climates, so they can live in far northern regions such as Scandinavia and northern Asia, and Canada. This is very beneficial for crop production in colder climates. Not only that, but the hair on bumblebees is branched and has a feathery appearance when viewed under the microscope. These hairs grab on to bits of pollen and allow the bee to get coated in the protein-rich particles. When bumblebees fly they build up an electrostatic charge that attracts pollen to the hairs, allowing the bee to collect their food in greater quantities. 

Do bumblebees kill wasps? 

Unfortunately for our hairy pollinators, wasps are predators with which the bumble bee has little defense. Wasps are omnivorous, and will bring dead insects back to a nest for larvae to feed on, or will sting the insect until it is paralyzed, and then bury it and lay eggs with the insect for the larvae to hatch out and consume. Different species of wasps have different prey, and some are specialized for specific creatures such as spiders or cockroaches. Their sleek, specialized bodies give wasps a great advantage against prey, and although bumble bees can put up a fight with their stinger, they are usually no match for the wasp. 

Do bumblebees see color? 

The dazzling array of flowers and their colours is no mistake; they are specifically designed to attract pollinators. Bumblebees can see a wide range of the spectrum but are unable to see red. They make up for this deficiency with their ability to see ultraviolet light. Some flowers may appear a simple colour to the human eye, but under UV they have extraordinary patterns and colours to draw in bees. As well, bumblebees are particularly attracted to flowers with blue or purple blooms, such as lilacs and lavender. 

Do bumblebees swarm? 

Bumblebees do not swarm. When someone mentions a “swarm of bees”, it typically sounds like a dangerous attack waiting to happen. Bee swarms occur when honey bees get overcrowded, don’t have enough food, or disease runs rampant through the hive. It is a way of moving or splitting the hive to seek a new home and is a survival trait exercised by honey bees. These swarms are not aggressive, but they are also something that bumblebees, along with all other bees, do not perform. For other bee species, they must find ways to deal with similar issues without swarming, as leaving a nest as a whole could mean death for all the bees involved. Drones may hover outside of the nest, and in a strong colony there could be a few dozen males waiting outside to defend it against attack, but otherwise, bumblebees do not swarm. 

Do bumblebees sleep? 

When evening falls, bumblebees made the dash back to their nest before the sun and temperatures drop. Sometimes, however, foraging bees don’t always make it back. If it suddenly becomes too cold, bumblebees will find a flower to huddle in for the night, protected by the closing petals and being able to have an immediate food source for the morning. They will sleep in the flower to conserve energy, just as their fellow workers will sleep in the nest. Drones also sleep at night, but they will do so outside of the nest, as they only spend a few days within it after hatching. The furry bodies of bumblebees give them the advantage to be able to sleep outdoors at night, whereas other bee species nest in cavities or huddle in the hive to keep warm.