Bumble bees are one of the most distinctive members of the insect kingdom. Fat and fuzzy like tiny furry sausages, they are hardworking pollinators of various flowering plants and are a keystone species. Bumble bees from the insect tribe Bombini number over 255 species and are mostly found in the Northern hemisphere’s more temperate climates. The largest bumble bee is the queen of the Bombus dahlbomii at nearly 4 centimeters long. They are found in South America and look like flying mice.
How do bumble bees live, and what makes them different from honey bees? Let’s find out.
1. Bumble bees are larger than honey bees
On average, bumble bees are about 2cm in length. They are usually black with broad yellow or orange bands. They are large and fuzzy with short, stubby wings – definitely larger than honeybees. They generate more heat as a result, allowing them to work during cooler weather.
Bumble bees actually have more than one main species – the Bombus species nest underground and are social bees, while the Psithyrus species has no worker caste and often enters Bombus nests to lay their eggs and have them be cared for by Bombus workers. Sometimes the Psithyrus queen and drones will sting the Bombus queen to death, taking over the hive and ensuring that there is no competition between Psithyrus bumble bee larvae and Bombus bumble bee larvae.
2. Bumble bees are power pollinators
bumble bee wings beat 130 times or more per second. With their large bodies, they vibrate flowers with the wingbeats until they release pollen. This unique buzz pollination helps plants produce more fruit. Bumble bees decide which flowers to forage from using a combination of colour and spatial relationships – they also have the ability to detect electric fields on flowers that occur due to atmospheric electricity and use this ability to find out if another bee has visited the flower.
3. Bumble bees don’t die when they use their stings
Unlike honeybees with their barbed stings, bumble bee stings are smooth. This means that the stinger doesn’t get ripped out when they sting. Only female worker bees and the Queen have a sting. Most of the time, the bumble bee is peaceful and not aggressive unless their nests are disturbed.
4. Bumble bees have smelly feet
Like all insects, bees are covered in an oily film that makes them waterproof. Bumble bees leave their chemical signature of flowers that they visit, telling other bees not to land on the same place as the flower nectar has been taken. Bees also use these smelly footprints as a way to help them navigate back to their nest.
Bees secret pheromones from their feet and their abdomen – as they go about their daily activities, the scent is trailed all over the areas they visit. The footprint pheromone is used to help bees with orientation and navigation, while the Nasonov pheromone from the abdomen is used to attract bees to the hive entrance or a food source.
5. Do bumble bees really defy aerodynamics?
It turns out that bumble bees are able to fly because their wings flap back and forth instead of up and down. This back and forth motion creates a sweeping, spinning effect like a helicopter propeller or a hovercraft, where the angles of the wing creates vortices in the air that help the bee stay aloft.
6. Bumble bees eat bee poop
Bumble bees usually consume a protein rich diet of pollen and nectar, but at the start of their adult lives they eat the feces of other bumble bees. The bee poop has microorganisms in it that supplement the bumble bee’s immune system and protects them from parasites.
7. Bumble bees don’t share honey
Honey bees make plenty of honey for consumption, enough to sustain their population and then some for bee keepers. Bumble bees on the other hand only make a small amount of honey for their own use. They have to eat a lot to keep themselves alive and afloat, as they have extremely fast metabolisms. A bumble bee with a full stomach is only about 40 minutes from starvation, so they have to eat almost continuously.
8. Bumble bees live underground
Bumble bees are social insects that live in colonies of 50 to 500 individuals underground. This is quite different from honey bees that can have over 50,000 bees in a colony. In the warm summer months, bumble bees hover above the nest and vibrate their wings like a fan to circulate air through the nest and lower its temperature. Bumble bees can also use their wings to raise their body temperature.
9. Bumble bees don’t survive the winter
Bumble bee queens leave the nest to mate when they are fully grown. Once they have mated, they find a safe place to hibernate for the winter, emerging in the spring to lay eggs and start new colonies. Other castes of bumble bees die in late fall.
The first brood of eggs from a bumble bee queen develops into worker bees who take over the collecting of pollen and caring for the hive. The colony grows until late summer, where males and new queens are produced. Male bumble bees, known as drones, are normally smaller than female bumble bees and do not have a stinger. In early fall, the queen stops laying eggs and the colony gradually dies out.
10. Bumble bees face many threats to their survival
Bumble bees are affected by many things, including habitat loss, introduced diseases, pesticides, climate change and competition from honey bees. Nearly a fifth of the bumble bee species in North America have vanished. One third of human food requires bee pollination – crop yields fall when bumble bees don’t have their preferred hedgerows as habitats.
Scientists use a special device called a pooter to safely pick up live bees. Small insects can be sucked into a jar by inhaling through one end of a tube – mesh on the mouthpiece stops the insect from entering the scientist’s mouth.
Scientists cut off the toes of bees to take DNA samples. They don’t really have toes, but the final tarsal segment is snipped off to be brought back to the lab for tests. The removal of their toes does not affect their ability to gather food or their lifespan.