Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) – Species Profile & Facts
You’ve most likely seen the little humming and buzzing creatures flying by your head more than one time. It looks like a bee, but it’s larger, fatter, and hairier, and you probably didn’t pay much attention to them, except when they annoyed you with their presence.
This is too bad since bumblebees are fascinating creatures. Today, we will discuss everything that makes bumblebees unique in the insect kingdom. So, first things first!
What is a Bumblebee?
Simply put, it’s a bee. Don’t let the name fool you into thinking that the addition of the ‘bumble’ part suggests something similar to bees, but not quite. The bumblebee belongs to the Hymenoptera order, family Apidae, genus Bombus and you can find it throughout the world in temperate climates. In essence, this is a genuine bee, encompassing over 250 species with varying characteristics.
The bumblebee is absent from arid and hot climates like Africa and large parts of India but have adapted extremely well to temperate areas. They are vital pollinators, playing a critical role in the healthy development of flora around the globe. Thanks to their biology and life cycle, they are even more proficient at it, causing humans to import them in areas where they are not endemic, like Australia and New Zealand.
It also helps that they are more adaptable to various environments than many species of bees and wasps.
How Big do Bumblebees Get?
Bumblebees will typically reach between 0.5 to 1 inch in length, depending on the species, environmental conditions, and even gender. The queen will surpass the lower-ranked individuals in terms of size, as it can reach 1.6 inches in some species like the Bombus dahlbomii.
An interesting fact about the bumblebee’s body is that it’s counterintuitive. It is rather full, massive compared to that of a regular bee, and appears too big for flight. Especially seeing as the bumblebee’s wings seem small and weak. This discrepancy has caused many to state that the bumblebee defies aerodynamics until more in-depth research has provided us with a deeper understanding of how bumblebees actually manipulate aerodynamics.
Unlike most insects, bumblebees flap their wings back and forth instead of up and down. However, the back-and-forth movement is not clean, as the wings also move slightly up and down at minor angles. This makes their wing flapping seem sloppy like the bumblebee struggles to remain airborne, but that’s not the case.
Its wing movement is intentional and aims to create small wind vortexes below the bumblebee’s wings and body. These vortexes will create a more powerful lifting effect, keeping the bumblebee’s heavy body floating. This makes for an impressive evolutionary feature that defies what we previously thought we knew about insect flight. And aerodynamics.
Do Bumblebees Build Nests?
Yes, they do. Most bumblebee species build underground nests to protect them from direct sunlight and overheating. The first iterations of a nest fall into the responsibilities of a queen. The queen will find the best place for building the nest, lay the eggs, and work to feed and care for the first generation of bumblebee larvae.
Once the larvae are born, the queen will start crafting the cocoon around them, setting the foundation of the future nest. The resulting worker bumblebee adults will take over the task of feeding the future generations of larvae and continue expanding the nest to accommodate the growing bumblebee population.
The nest’s size will vary between the different bumblebee species. Some species will produce homes housing around 50 to 200-300 individuals. In other species, you can find bumblebee populations of 20 individuals, while others can display societies of up to 1,700 individuals or more.
If the latter sounds a lot, it actually isn’t when compared to other species of bees whose populations can reach 50,000 individuals.
Do Bumblebees Sting?
Yes, but this isn’t a reason for too much concern. Bumblebees are less likely to sting you compared to yellowjackets, other wasps, and even honeybees. They would rather avoid human interaction and flea the scene if possible. If you really want to get stung, for some reason, you can disturb their nest and threaten their colony, which should get the job done pretty fast.
The sting isn’t any more painful than that of a regular honeybee, leading to inflammation, localized pain, and redness. It may also cause anaphylactic shock, but the risk is low as with all insect bites and stings. The more problematic aspect is that bumblebees don’t lose their stinger in the stinging process, unlike honeybees. So, they can sting multiple times if threatened or held against their will.
Only bumblebee workers and queens can sting.
Where Can Bumblebees Be Found?
Most species of bumblebees live in temperate climates with stable temperatures. There are, however, bumblebee species that defy the rule and manage to thrive in rather inhospitable environmental conditions. B. Polaris, for instance, lives in the high Arctic, while other species inhabit northern parts of the Sahara.
The bumblebee’s amazing adaptability to colder temperatures stems from the species’ ability to regulate its internal temperature. The bumblebee achieves this feat via 3 major strategies:
- Solar radiation – Absorbing solar radiation allows the bumblebee to warm up in cold temperatures. This allows the insect to absorb more heat even from weaker sunshine, making other insects uncomfortable.
- Shivering – The bumblebee’s flight muscles have a unique design compared to other insects. Instead of contracting and relaxing its muscles to support its flight, the bumblebee makes them shiver, creating movements similar to a rubber band. This requires less effort and helps the bumblebee conserve precious energy during flight. The same mechanism allows the bumblebee to increase its body temperature and remain warm in otherwise hostile environmental conditions.
- Radiative cooling – The bumblebee uses the principle of heterothermy to regulate its internal temperature. Heterothermy allows the bumblebee to switch between poikilothermy and homeothermy. In other words, the bumblebee can both self-regulate its internal temperature via specific processes or allow the environment to control it. This feature provides the insect with high adaptability to adverse environmental conditions.
What do Bumblebees Eat?
Bumblebees feed off flower nectar with the help of their proboscis. This organ is similar to that of butterflies. Essentially, it’s a long tongue that remains folded under the head until the bumblebee is ready to use it. The insect will use the proboscis to suck nectar from various flowers.
Various species of bumblebees will prefer different flowers, which usually depends on their ability to reach the plant’s nectar. Some bumblebee species have too short a proboscis to feed off plants that other species can easily consume.
Do Bumblebees Have a Queen?
Yes, they do. Queens are born in already established colonies with dozens or hundreds of members. Once the queen reaches adulthood, the hive will force it to leave along with the males. Only the worker bumblebees will remain to care for the future generation of adults.
The queen and the bumblebee males need to leave to start off a new colony. The males are less unfortunate since they will die soon after mating with the queen. The queen, however, will find a fitting place for a new colony and work on establishing the foundation of the future bumblebee society.
How do Bumblebees Reproduce?
The reproduction process in bumblebees is a genuine adventure spanning over the course of an entire year. It goes like this:
- As autumn approaches, young queens leave the colony, along with the males, and mate with them several times until winter comes
- During that time, the queen will also eat as much as it can to store fat for the cold season
- The queen will then enter a period of diapause (hibernation) to protect itself from the unfavorable weather conditions, while all the drones, males, and workers will die
- In early spring, the hibernation is complete, and the queen will start seeking a suitable location for a new hive
- The queen will build wax cells that will serve as home to fertilized eggs
- The queen will then use its body to keep the eggs warm and feed and care for the resulting larvae
- The larvae will grow into full adults, and the cycle will repeat
Are Bumblebees Dangerous?
No, they’re not. At most, they can attack you if you’re threatening them, but you have to work for it. They won’t simply sting you out of the blue like many wasps and honeybees tend to do. Honeybees can even attack you because of your deodorant, perfume, or even colored clothing.
Bumblebees will only attack if they need to, in case you’re disturbing their nest. Other than that, they pose no threat to humans or animals. Bumblebees are also beneficial to the environment as they rank as excellent pollinators.
Are Bumblebees Good Pollinators?
Some of the best. Bumblebees are so effective at pollination than they surpass common pollinator insects like honeybees. This is due to their more extended proboscis and the vibration mechanism, allowing bumblebees to pollinate flowers that other pollinating species can’t approach.
This pollinating behavior ranks bumblebees as one of the most desired insect species in the world, especially given their outstanding environmental adaptability. The bumblebees’ economic importance cannot be understated.
Do Bumblebees Make Honey?
Yes and no. Bumblebees only make enough honey for them to eat whenever necessary. In honeybees, for instance, the process of making honey has to do with winter survival. Honeybees use flower nectar to make honey reserves that they seal with wax to store for the cold season.
This provides the bees with valuable food sources when flowers are no longer available during winter. Bumblebees don’t need that since they don’t survive the winter anyway. Bumblebee males, workers, and drones will all die when the cold season approaches, with only the queen surviving the adverse environmental conditions.
And the queen doesn’t need food during winter since it will hibernate. Similar to bears and other hibernating creatures, the bumblebee queen will eat more before the cold season arrives, trying to pack as much fat as possible. She will then live off of her fat reserves for several months until spring comes and the queen’s life resumes.
So, don’t count on bumblebees for some honey for your latte.
Are Bumblebees Nocturnal or Diurnal?
They are primarily diurnal, but some bumblebee species are also active in the evening until nightfall. The reason why bumblebees don’t do well at night has to do with 2 of their core traits:
- Temperature – Bumblebees don’t do well in environments with fluctuating temperatures and don’t like the cold air during nighttime. They prefer to remain in their nest overnight, keeping each other warm, safe, and dry.
- Navigation – Bumblebees use the sun’s polarized light to navigate during daytime. This type of light penetrates clouds, allowing bumblebees to navigate effectively, which cannot happen during nighttime. That being said, you can still see some bumblebees flying near various electrical light sources at nighttime. Those bumblebees are pretty much doomed since they will spend all their energy being disoriented by these light sources, rendering them unable to reach their nest. They will most likely die due to the colder temperatures and starvation.
Are Bumblebees Aggressive?
No, they are not. Bumblebees are actually quite timid, preferring to avoid human contact. They will only attack if threatened directly, caught and held, or disturbed in their nest. Other than that, they will try to flee rather than fight.
They will sting multiple times if they do attack, unlike other bee species, so you have that.
Do Bumblebees Hibernate?
Only the queen hibernates during winter. All other bumblebees will die as they will no longer serve any purpose. The queen is the one responsible for ensuring the survival of the species, which is why she needs to hibernate through the cold season.
How Long do Bumblebees Live?
Regular bumblebees, which includes workers, drones, and males, will live, on average, around 28 days. Many will only live a couple of weeks. On the other hand, the queen will outlive all its subordinates and will remain alive throughout the colony’s lifespan. As the wintertime approaches, younger queens will leave the colony and go into a hibernating state.
They will then resurrect when spring arrives, establish a new colony, and pass on the torch to the next generation of queens the following winter. It’s a never-ending cycle that ensures the bumblebees’ existence since times immemorial.
Bumblebees are basically harmless and fat bees. They are highly adaptable, have a unique biological profile, and rank as the most efficient pollinators in the insect kingdom.
If you see one buzzing near you, remember to thank him for his services.