Get All the Buzz on Busy Bumblebees

What is super hairy and has a mustache? It’s not just your dad; it could be a bumblebee too! We recognize these big, friendly pollinators as they BUZZZ from one flower to the next. But what else do you know about how they live?

(Photo via Shutterstock)

There are more than 250 species of bumblebees in the Bombus genus. Because of their furry, round bodies, they can tolerate cooler weather than other bees. They mostly live in temperate climates in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the area between the tropics and the polar zone. However, they can even be found in the Arctic tundra!

That yellow and black pattern warns predators not to mess with bumblebees. Some bees have other patches or bands of red or orange, like our locally endangered rusty patched bumble bee.


Count a bumblebee’s wings. How many do you see? They have four wings. Little hooks hold the front and back wings together to make them more stable.

Fun fact: Bumblebees can sting more than once because they have a smooth stinger. Honeybees, on the other hand, have barbs at the end of their stingers that dig into our skin. They can’t pull out the stinger without tearing apart their abdomen. So they can only sting once, but they make it count! Lucky for us, bumblebees are more focused on feeding. They rarely sting unless people antagonize them.

Lifecycle


Like honeybees, bumblebees are social, which means they live together in a hive. Also like honeybees, bumblebees have three types of bees in their hive: queens, workers and drones. Each type does their job to make the hive a success.


Here’s a closer look at the phases of their lifecycle:

Phase 1: Queens are the only bumblebee that hibernates. They emerge in the spring and find a nest site, like an old mouse burrow. The queen lays several broods of eggs over the spring and summer. She keeps the eggs warm by fanning them with her wings and resting on them with her warm abdomen.

Phase 2: Eggs hatch into female worker bees. Bumblebees that are born earlier in the season help to look after the youngsters born later in the year. Their colonies are much smaller than honeybees. Sometimes there are only 50 bumblebees in a hive. Honeybees can have tens of thousands of individuals living and working together.

Phase 3: In the late summer, the queen lays her final generation of eggs. This brood has a new queen for next year and male drones for the new queen to mate with. In some species you can tell it’s a drone because they look like they have a hairy orange mustache!

Phase 4: By fall, the entire colony will die out, except the fertilized queen. She will go underground to burrow for the winter.

Fun fact: Bumblebees don’t make honey because they don’t have to store food for winter.

Food for bees and people


Bumblebees excel at spreading pollen. This fertilizes wild plants and crops like tomatoes, blueberries and squash. We can’t enjoy these foods without pollinators!

 

Words to know

Antagonize: To provoke.

Fertilize: To make something fertile or more fertile by adding suitable substances.

Genus: A class of living things that have common characteristics.

Tolerate: To allow the existence or practice of something without interference.

 

They don’t do it for us. They eat nectar, which has so much energy from carbohydrates, and protein-packed pollen from flowers. An average bumblebee will haul 25% of its body weight in pollen and nectar on a food run. Some can carry an incredible 75% of their body weight. That’s like a third-grader lugging around 50 pounds in the lunchroom!


How do they get their food? In the bumblebees’ world it’s polite to slurp up nectar with their tongues. Some flowers are wide open, so they only need a short tongue to get their fuel. Other flowers have long, narrow openings. There are bumblebees with long tongues that specialize in these flowers.


Fun fact: The length of the tongue is how scientists know which species of bumblebee they have. Can you imagine measuring a bumblebee’s tongue?

Bumblebee dance


When worker bees return from a foraging trip, they dance inside the nest. This victory dance lasts several minutes, during which they run in erratic circles. They are telling their nestmates where to go for food!

Buzz pollination


Bumblebees can really move their wings, flapping at 130 beats per second to 240 beats per second. The resulting buzz you hear isn’t just for show. Their large size and buzzy vibrations let bumblebees shake pollen out of some plants that are hard to reach, like tomatoes and blueberries. This is called buzz pollination.

Watch for yourself how buzz pollination works.

Scent-marking flowers

(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Dogs aren’t the only animals making their territory. Bumblebees do it as a courtesy to others. Using scent glands, they mark a flower as “already finished.” This way bumblebees don’t have to waste their time on a flower with no nectar.

Nectar robbing


Sometimes bumblebees cheat. Instead of going inside a flower to get the nectar and pollen — which pollinates the flower — they poke a hole at the base of the flower. They then slide their tongue through to suck up the nectar. Other bumblebees might take advantage of that same hole.

So go outside and watch the bumblebees in action! Maybe one is pollinating a flower or another one is racing back to dance for its roommates. Is the bumblebee a worker or a drone? Who knows, you might even spot one that resembles Dad!

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