10 Incredible Bumblebee Facts

Written by Patrick Sather
Published: June 23, 2022
Image Credit Brier Mitchell/Shutterstock.com
Share this post on:

Bumblebees get their name from the word bumble, which means to buzz, hum, or move about awkwardly or indistinctly. All 250 extant bumblebee species belong to the genus Bombus, from the Latin word for a buzzing or humming sound. You can find bumblebees throughout the Northern Hemisphere along with South America and parts of Southeast Asia and New Zealand.  They serve an important role as pollinators and feature prominently in many of the stories, music, and myths of many cultures around the world. Here are 10 incredible bumblebee facts that demonstrate what makes bumblebees so cool. 

10. Bumblebees Can Regulate Their Body Temperature

The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)
The early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)

Ernie – Public Domain

First on our list of bumblebee facts is a discussion of a fascinating bumblebee adaptation. Bumblebees tend to live in much colder temperatures than other bees. In fact, some species, such as B. polaris and B hyperboreus, live in the Arctic, farther north than any other eusocial insect. To survive in such environments, bumblebees adapted several traits to stave off cold temperatures that would ground most other bees.

First of all, thick, long bristles called setae cover their entire bodies and act as a form of insulation. Species that live in colder climates tend to have longer and thicker setae. Bumblebees need to maintain an internal muscle temperature of around 86 degrees Fahrenheit in order to fly. In cold weather, they heat up their bodies by shivering, and can also generate heat via solar radiation. 

9. Compared to Honeybee Hives, Bumblebee Nests Look Tiny

Do bumble bees sting
Bumblebees live together in family groups in a nest ruled by a queen who is helped by her daughters (called worker bees). There can be up to 400 bees in a single bumblebee nest

It’s not uncommon for honeybee hives to contain anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 bees. Some especially large hives can potentially hold hundreds of thousands of bees. Even small honeybee hives typically number around 20,000 individuals. In comparison, bumblebee nests look positively tiny. 

The average bumblebee nest contains between 50 and 400 individual bees. That said, some nests have as few as 20 individuals, while the largest nests have up to 1,700 individual bees. Bumblebees often build their nests underground in abandoned burrows but will also make their nests in trees or thick vegetation. Unlike honeybee hives, which look quite orderly, bumblebee hives look like untidy messes. 

8. Cuckoo Bumblebees Invade the Nests of Other Bumblebees

Field cuckoo bee (Bombus campestris)
Cuckoo bumblebees do not build their own nests and instead invade the nests of other bumblebees.

IanRedding/Shutterstock.com

Bumblebees and most bees at large are often associated with industriousness. People picture bees as hard-working creatures that strive for the betterment of the group by putting their nose to the grindstone. Generally speaking, this metaphor is accurate for most species. However, some “lazy” honeybees have figured out a way to have their cake and eat it too. 

Cuckoo bumblebees on the subgenus Psithyrus are brood parasites. They specialize in invading the nests of other bumblebees, making this one of the more gruesome bumblebee facts on this list. Usually, a cuckoo bumblebee female will kill or displace the queen of a host nest and then subdue the resident worker bees so that they focus their efforts on feeding her and her offspring. Cuckoo bumblebees adapted larger mandibles and venom sacs than non-parasitic bumblebees, giving them an edge in bee-to-bee combat. 

7. The Largest Bumblebees Measure up to 1.6 Inches Long

Bombus Dahlbomii
Bombus dahlbomii is the largest bumblebee species in the world.

Jody./Shutterstock.com

Like any family with lots of members, bumblebees vary widely in size and appearance. Some species look more akin to honeybees with yellow and black stripes, while others look predominantly yellow, black, or red. As for size, while most bumblebees measure about the same size, some grow to be especially small or large. 

Take for instance Bombus dahlbomii, a bumblebee endemic to temperate forests in Chile and Argentina. Fully mature queens can measure up to 1.6 inches long, making them the largest bumblebee in the world. Due to their large size, some people refer to them as “flying mice.”

6. Bumblebees Can Sting Multiple Times

Do bumble bees sting
Close-up of allergic reaction to a bee sting on human skin. Bumblebees will not die if they use their sting, whereas honey bees will.

WIRACHAIPHOTO/Shutterstock.com

The main reason that people don’t like or fear bees is because of their infamous stinger. It’s well-known that only female bees can sting, but there’s more to it than that. For instance, not all bee species can sting. Additionally, only honeybee females have barbs on their stinger. This is why honeybee females can only sting once, as the stinger breaks off and they die.

On the other hand, bumblebee females can sting multiple times. Both worker bees and the queen bee in a bumblebee nest can sting but rarely do so. Normally, bumblebees will only sting if threatened or severely agitated. While bumblebee stings aren’t normally dangerous, some people can have an allergic reaction if stung. The most common symptoms include pain, redness, and swelling.  

5. Bumblebees Don’t Make Good Honey Producers

One of the best things about honeybees is that they produce large quantities of honey, hence their name. A single honeybee hive can produce about 60 pounds of honey in a year on average. This capacity for producing honey is why commercial honeybee production is so sustainable. On the other hand, bumblebees make terrible honey producers.

Bumblebees keep a close eye on the amount of honey stored in the honeypots in the hive. Once food stores run low, they venture out to forage for more nectar. Generally speaking, a bumblebee hive only contains a few days’ worth of food at any one time. As a result, bumblebees simply don’t store enough food to make them good honey producers. 

4. Bumblebees Forage by Examining the Color, Shape, Temperature, and Electric Fields of Flowers

A bumblebee enjoying a flower in Wellington Park, Somerset.
A bumblebee enjoying a flower in Wellington Park, Somerset.

Julie Anne Workman / Creative Commons

Animals use a wide variety of methods to help them find and collect food. While some rely on smell, others primarily use sight or touch-based stimuli. Still, others take a completely different approach, which brings us to one of our most unusual bumblebee facts.

A bumblebee’s first option when searching for food is to use color and spatial reasoning to figure out which flowers it should visit.  Additionally, bumblebees can also detect the electric fields of flowers caused by electricity in the atmosphere. Bumblebees not only know when these fields are present, but they can also identify specific patterns within the fields. Finally, bumblebees contain internal sensors that let them detect the temperature of flowers. This information lets them know if a flower has been recently visited by another bee, which parts of the flower to visit, and what type of flower it is. 

3. Bumblebees Might Have Evolved to Mimic Each Other in Appearance

Müllerian mimicry is a naturally occurring phenomenon in which two species mimic each other in appearance for mutual benefit. Typically, species do this in order to warn off predators by adopting the appearance of a species with effective defensive traits. For example, a species of bad-tasting moth may mimic the appearance of a poisonous moth and vice versa. This phenomenon is seen in numerous species and is particularly well-documented in bumblebees.

Evidence suggests that bumblebees in certain parts of the world engage in Müllerian mimicry in an attempt to ward off predators. They adopt similar colors and patterns as other bumblebees to let predators know that they are dangerous due to their painful sting. Also, bumblebees in certain regions all seem to exhibit the same patterns. Pattern similarities vary depending on the region, which supports the belief the bumblebees that exist in the same area mimic each other.  

2. Bumblebees Engage in Social Learning

Do bumble bees sting
Bumblebees use social learning to emulate the successful behaviors of other bumblebees.

Brier Mitchell/Shutterstock.com

Social learning describes the process of learning via observation of or in collusion with other animals. Many different species engage in social learning including birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. While many people think of insects as relatively simple-minded, social learning is also common in several eusocial species. 

Evidence suggests that bumblebees utilize social learning to help them emulate the effective actions of other bees. One study showed that bees who observed another bee performing a task were more successful than bees who attempted to learn the same task performed by a machine. Essentially, bees learn best when trying to achieve the same goals as other bees. 

1. Bumblebee Populations Are in Decline

Unfortunately, like many species, bumblebees face a number of significant threats. As a result, bumblebee populations in many parts of the world are in decline. The primary factors affecting bumblebees include land-use changes due to agriculture, habitat loss, and the use of pesticides. A number of species have been extirpated from their native territory, while others are in serious decline. Due to this decline, the IUCN lists a number of species as Vulnerable or Endangered.

Thankfully, conservationists are making an effort to preserve the remaining bumblebee species. Commercial bumblebee use is increasing due to their effectiveness as pollinators. Also, you can now find wild bumblebee sanctuaries in some countries. That said, bumblebee conservation efforts are in their infancy and much work still needs to be done.  

Share this post on:

More from A-Z Animals