Bumble Bee: All You Need to Know in a Quick Guide

Bumblebees, belonging to the genus Bombus, play a crucial role in our ecosystem as they pollinate various plants and contribute to the growth of many fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

These fuzzy, black-and-yellow insects are known for their distinct appearance and buzzing flight. As native bees to North America, bumblebees can be spotted in diverse habitats, from farmlands and open spaces to gardens in urban areas.

Bumble Bee

Their fascinating life cycle begins with the queen bee emerging in spring and forming a colony throughout summer.

Over time, the colony grows as worker bees play a key role in collecting nectar and pollen, thus ensuring the colony’s well-being.

Bumblebees face multiple threats, such as habitat loss, urban development, climate change, and diseases introduced by non-native species.

Understanding the importance and conservation of these busy pollinators can help maintain a healthy and vibrant ecosystem.

Bumble Bee Basics

Bee Species and Identification

Bumble bees (genus Bombus) are large, fuzzy, and robust insects that play a crucial role in pollination. There are around 250 known species of bumble bees worldwide, each with unique color patterns and features.

Identifying bumble bees often involves examining their abdomen, which is covered in black or yellow hairs. Here are some examples of common species:

  • Bombus pensylvanicus: A fuzzy black-and-yellow bee found in North America.
  • Bombus terrestris: A widespread European species with a white tail.

Key Features of Bumble Bees

Bumble bees are known for their distinct appearance and behavior. Some of their key features include:

  • Large size compared to other bees.
  • Fuzzy, hairy bodies usually with black and yellow stripes.
  • Two pairs of wings that enable fast and agile flight.
  • Presence of pollen baskets on their hind legs for carrying pollen.

Comparison Table: Bumble Bee vs. Honey Bee

Feature Bumble Bee Honey Bee
Size Larger (up to 2.5 cm) Smaller (up to 1.5 cm)
Body Texture Fuzzy and hairy Less fuzzy, smoother
Pollen Basket Present on hind legs Absent
Color Mostly black and yellow Yellow with brown

Bumble Bee Behavior

Bumble bees, like many other insects, exhibit a range of behaviors that are intricately linked to their survival, reproduction, and social structure.

Understanding these behaviors provides a glimpse into their fascinating world and underscores their importance in our ecosystem.

1. Social Structure

Bumble bees live in colonies led by a single queen. The colony consists of female workers, males, and, eventually, new queens.

Unlike honeybees, bumble bee colonies are annual, meaning they last for only one season.

  • Queen: The dominant female in the colony, responsible for laying eggs.
  • Workers: Sterile females that perform various tasks like foraging, feeding the young, and defending the nest.
  • Males: Their primary role is to mate with new queens.
Brown-Belted Bumble Bee

2. Communication

Bumble bees communicate primarily through chemical signals known as pheromones. These chemical messages can indicate various things, from signaling danger to directing others to food sources.

  • Nasonov Pheromone: Released by worker bees to guide others back to the colony or a rich food source.
  • Alarm Pheromone: Emitted when the colony is threatened, alerting other bees to defend the nest.

3. Navigation

Bumble bees have an incredible ability to navigate. They use a combination of visual landmarks, the sun’s position, and even polarized light patterns in the sky, which are invisible to the human eye.

  • Path Integration: Bumble bees can calculate the distance and direction back to their nest based on their outbound flight.
  • Flower Memory: They remember which flowers they’ve visited and when, ensuring they don’t waste energy revisiting them until they’ve had time to replenish their nectar.

4. Foraging Behavior

Bumble bees exhibit flower constancy, meaning they tend to visit the same type of flower during a single foraging trip.

This behavior is beneficial for plants, as it enhances the chances of cross-pollination.

5. Thermoregulation

Unique among bees, bumble bees can regulate their body temperature by rapidly moving their flight muscles.

This ability allows them to remain active in cooler temperatures when other bees might be dormant.

6. Interaction with Other Bees

Bumble bees are generally non-aggressive towards other bees. However, they can become defensive if their nest is threatened.

They also occasionally “rob” nectar by making a hole near the base of a flower, accessing the nectar without pollinating the flower.

7. Mating Behavior

Once males leave the nest, they don’t return. They spend their time feeding on nectar and looking for queens to mate with.

After mating, the male bee’s life is typically complete, while the fertilized queen seeks a place to hibernate and start a new colony the following year.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Colony Formation and Roles

Bumblebee colonies are formed by a single queen who emerges in spring.

She finds a suitable nesting site, collects nectar and pollen, and lays her first batch of eggs.

Some examples of nesting sites include tussocky grass and cavities in rocks or even rodent burrows.

American Bumble Bee
  • Queen bees: Responsible for laying eggs and producing new colony members.
  • Female workers: Non-reproductive and help the colony by collecting food and taking care of the brood.
  • Male bumblebees: Fertilize the new queens for the next season.

From Egg to Adult

Bumblebee life cycle consists of four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Here’s a comparison table to help understand the differences:

Stage Description Duration
Egg Laid by the queen bee; small, white, and oval-shaped. 4-5 days
Larva Hatches from the egg; white, worm-like, and grows by eating pollen and nectar mixed by worker bees. 10-14 days
Pupa Transforms from larva inside a cocoon-like structure; develops into an adult bee. 10-14 days
Adult Emerges from the pupa; either becomes a queen, a female worker, or a male bumblebee. Variable life

Two examples of how the bumblebee’s life cycle is regulated include seasonal changes and available resources. Queens emerge in spring, and colonies usually last until fall.

Overall, understanding the life cycle and reproduction of bumblebees helps in preserving their populations, which play a crucial role in pollinating plants and maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Habitat and Nesting Sites

Nesting in the Ground

Bumble bees, particularly those of the genus Bombus, are often found nesting in the ground. They prefer cavities in rock or talus, tussocky grass, and even rodent burrows.

Queen bees look for suitable nesting sites usually in spring, after emerging from their underground hibernation.

Examples of ground-nesting sites:

  • Old mouse nests
  • Abandoned rodent burrows
  • Sheltered spots in gardens with native plants

Ground nesting sites provide:

  • Protection from predators
  • Insulation against temperature changes

Nesting in Wood

Bumble bees can also nest in wooden habitats, finding sheltered spaces near the ground’s surface. These sites can include hollow trees, wooden structures, and piles of logs or branches.

To support wood-nesting bumble bees in your garden, incorporate native plants and provide suitable spaces for them to build their nests.

Common Eastern Bumble Bee

Examples of wood-nesting sites:

  • Inside hollow trees
  • Between stacks of firewood
  • In wooden garden structures
Habitat Type Pros Cons
Ground More abundant sites Vulnerable to disturbance
Wood Natural insulation May be rarer habitats

Habitat Loss: Both ground and wood-nesting bumble bees have been negatively affected by habitat loss, particularly in the northern hemisphere and South America.

To help conserve their populations, consider creating or maintaining natural spaces in your garden, incorporating native plants, and minimizing pesticide use.

Diet and Foraging Behavior

Flowers and Pollinators

Bumble bees are essential pollinators as they visit various flowers to feed on nectar and collect pollen for their colonies.

As they forage for these resources, they carry out the critical process of pollination. Some distinct features of bumble bees as pollinators are:

  • Long tongues to reach the nectar in deep flowers.
  • Ability to fly in cooler temperatures and low light conditions.
  • Preference for native and flowering plants.

Here’s a quick comparison of bumble bees and honeybees as pollinators:

Bumble Bees Honeybees
Tongue length Long Short
Flight ability Cooler temperatures Warmer temperatures
Plant types Native & flowering Wide range of plants

Pollination Techniques

Bumble bees use a unique foraging behavior called buzz pollination.

During this process, the bee shakes its body rapidly, releasing pollen from flowers, which then attaches to their hind legs, allowing them to transport the pollen to the next flower.

This process is highly effective for pollination, and not all bees are capable of performing it.

For example, buzz pollination is essential for plants like tomatoes and blueberries, which require vibrations to release their pollen.

While other bees, like honeybees, cannot perform this behavior, bumble bees excel at it, making them crucial for the pollination of these plants.

Perplexing Bumble Bee

Threats and Conservation

Environmental Challenges

Bumblebees face various environmental challenges, including pesticides and climate change. The use of pesticides, such as insecticides, can harm these crucial pollinators, decreasing their populations.

Climate change also negatively impacts bumblebees, as it affects their habitats and food sources.

For example, consider these two common threats:

  • Pesticides: Harmful to bumblebees and other pollinators, affecting their health and reproduction rates.
  • Climate Change: Affects the seasonal availability of flowers, which bumblebees rely on.

Supporting Bumble Bee Populations

Efforts to support bumblebee populations involve implementing conservation measures and promoting suitable habitats. Some approaches include:

  • Reducing pesticide use: Minimizing or avoiding the use of harmful chemicals can help protect bumblebees and their habitats.
  • Providing nesting and hibernation sites: Bumblebees need safe spaces to nest and hibernate during the winter months. Leaving certain areas of your yard unraked or piling leaves can provide suitable overwintering locations for queens1.
  • Planting diverse flower gardens: Providing an array of native flowering plants ensures that bumblebees have a continuous food source throughout the season.

Here is a comparison of two methods for supporting bumblebees:

Method Pros Cons
Reducing pesticide use Protects bumblebees and overall ecosystem May require alternative pest management
Planting diverse flower gardens Provides continuous food source for bumblebees Requires ongoing maintenance

As bumblebees such as the rusty patched bumble bee are listed as endangered species, it is crucial to address their threats and take necessary measures to support and conserve their populations.

Bumble Bee

Bumble Bee Interaction with Plants

Beneficial Garden Plants

Bumble bees play a crucial role as pollinators for various plants, ensuring successful reproduction. They benefit gardens by pollinating flowers, fruits, and vegetables that require insect pollination, including:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Melons
  • Strawberries

Adding plants like chives, comfrey, California poppies, columbine, sunflowers, salvia, basil, cilantro, and parsley to your garden can provide essential nectar sources and further encourage bumble bee visits1.

Buzz Pollination

As mentioned earlier, Bumble bees use a unique method called buzz pollination to collect pollen efficiently.

This method is particularly effective in plants with tubular flowers, such as tomatoes and peppers, as their anatomical structure makes it difficult for other pollinators to access the pollen2.

Specific Plant Species

Here’s a comparison table of some bumble bee-friendly plants and their characteristics:

Plant Features Benefits
Chives – Perennial herb
– Purple or white flowers
– Rich in nectar
– Attracts bumble bees
California Poppy – Annual or perennial
– Orange, red or yellow flowers
– Provides nectar and pollen
– Drought-tolerant
Columbine – Perennial
– Various colors
– Nectar-rich
– Hummingbird and bee attractant
Sunflowers – Annual
– Yellow, red, or orange flowers
– Large pollen and nectar source
– Seeds for birds
Basil – Annual herb
– White or purple flowers
– Fragrant leaves
– Attracts bees and butterflies
Cilantro – Annual herb
– White or pink flowers
– Rich in nectar
– Attracts bees and hoverflies
Parsley – Biennial herb
– Yellow-green flowers
– Nectar source
– Larval host plant for butterflies3

Adding these plants to your garden not only supports bumble bee populations but also brings aesthetic and ecological benefits to your outdoor space.

Preventing and Minimizing Stings

Bumble Bee Behavior and Safety Tips

Bumble bees are generally not aggressive, but they might sting when they feel threatened.

To minimize the risk of getting stung, it is essential to understand their behavior and follow safety precautions.

  • Stay calm and move away slowly: When you encounter a bumble bee, do not swat or make sudden movements, as this can provoke them to sting.
  • Avoid disturbing their habitat: Be cautious near nests or areas with bumble bee activity.
  • Wear protective clothing: If you need to be in areas with bumble bees, wear long sleeves, pants, and closed-toe shoes to reduce exposure.

Conclusion

Bumble bees, vital pollinators belonging to the genus Bombus, significantly impact our ecosystem by aiding the growth of numerous plants.

With around 250 species globally, these fuzzy insects, native to North America, have a unique life cycle and social structure.

Their behaviors, from communication to navigation, are intricate and crucial for their survival.

Facing threats like habitat loss and climate change, understanding and conserving these buzzing wonders is paramount to maintaining a balanced and thriving ecosystem.

Footnotes

  1. Saving the rusty patch bumble bee | U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2
  2. Bumblebees – US Forest Service
  3. Befriending Bumble Bees: A Practical Guide to Raising Local Bumble Bees

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Bumble Bees nesting in Bird House

Carpenter Bee’s?
June 8, 2010
They have moved into my birdhouse which had birds in it until recently. I noticed them about a week ago. I thought they were bumble bees considering they were creating a nest within a fully prepped bird nest.
Looking at your website they have the black spot in the upper body, but the abdomen is not shiny as usually referenced (carpenter bees) and they don’t seem so solitary. I keep missing the picture when more are sitting out on the outside.
Just wondering if they will let me mow the lawn. Every time I venture within 6 ft they come outside and eyeball me. (haha)
dglover
Oklahoma City, OK

Bumble Bees

Dear dglover,
These are definitely Bumble Bees in the genus Bombus, but we are not certain of the species, because as you can see on BugGuide, many species look similar.  We have received reports in the past of Bumble Bees nesting in an abandoned bird house.  Bumble Bees are not aggressive, though the possibility always exists that they might sting.

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