Five things you should know about bumble bees

One sunny afternoon this week, I ambled through the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians and stumbled upon this beautiful bumble bee foraging on echinacea.

The buff-tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris), easily recognisable by its white bottom, forages on Echinacea purpurea in the RCP Medicinal Garden

I love bumble bees! Like butterflies and ladybirds, bumble bees are one of the few insects that everyone loves. They are fat and fuzzy, their familiar buzz heralds the start of spring, and they look impossible when they fly. Here are five things you should know about our friendly neighbourhood pollinators.

#Factoid 1: Bumble bees are very messy
Bumble bees are notoriously messy. Unlike honeybees who build tidy hives with perfect hexagonal combs to store brood, pollen and honey, bumble bees will nest underground in abandoned mouse holes or beneath dense grass or piles of leaves. If you have a compost heap in your garden, it is likely that one summer you will see bumble bees flying in and out. Don’t fret. Leave them alone and they won’t bother you. The nest will die out at the end of summer and the queen will find a new home next spring.

#Factoid 2: Bumble bees make honey
Like all bees, and even wasps, bumble bees do make honey. However, bumble bee colonies do not make enough honey for beekeepers to harvest – which is why we don’t keep them! Bumble bees produce honey to feed the colony during spring and summer, but they do not stock their larders for winter because only the queen survives the winter.

Bumble bees make little wax cups to store honey, which are strewn in a disorderly fashion about their messy nests. Their nests only reach a population of around 400 individuals, unlike honeybees who reach a population of around 50,000 individuals in summer. This is another reason why bumble bees don’t need to produce as much honey.

Bumble bees don't forage more than a few hundred metres from their nest. Somewhere nearby there is a secret underground lair with wax cups of echinacea-flavoured honey!

#Factoid 3: Bumble bees are like wasps!
Don’t be offended bumble bee lovers, but the bumble bee life-cycle shares more similarities with wasps than honeybees. At the end of summer, all but the queen will die. She survives to hibernate underground with a few cups of honey to sustain her through winter. In spring, the queen emerges and flies out to find a new nesting site. She will start building an untidy nest around her and lay eggs. When enough workers have hatched, they will take over the job of nest building and foraging, and leave the queen free to continue laying eggs.

Like wasps, bumble bees also do not die when they sting. So be warned! Almost all bumble bee species are gentle-natured and reluctant to sting unless provoked. However, the species Bombus hypnorum, the tree bumble bee, has been known to be more aggressive and their nests are fiercely guarded by drones. This species is identifiable by its distinctive ginger stripes and white tail. Give it respect!

#Factoid 4: Bumble bees have smelly feet
It’s true. Bumble bees produce oily secretions from their feet to let other bees know which flowers they have visited. This tells other pollinators, including honeybees, that nectar has already been foraged from the plant. Rather thoughtful of them.

I don’t know if bumble bees wipe their smelly feet, but perhaps this is why honeybees don’t welcome bumble bees in their hives. I have been told by beekeepers, if a bumble bee aimlessly ambles into a honeybee hive, she is promptly picked up either side by two guard bees who escort her out.

#Factoid 5: Bumble bees are from Krypton
Like Superman, bumble bees need the warmth of the sun to fly! Bumble bee bodies are naturally cold and they cannot fly until they have been warmed by the sun. If you find a bumble bee appearing to stumble slowly about a shady flower bed, gently place her in a sunny spot where she won’t be disturbed. Hopefully, she will warm up and fly back to her nest.

You can read more fascinating facts about bumble bees at the Bumble Bee Conversation Trust. You can also help save British bumble bees by joining the trust for as little as £2 per month.


24 thoughts on “Five things you should know about bumble bees

  1. I love bumblebees,
    thanks for teaching me so many things that I did not know about them.
    I especially thank you for the part about the sun so I can help out.

    One question.
    Where does the eggs come from? Does the bumble queen conceive them with one of the other bumblebees before they die and keep them during winter?

    • I love bumbles too, although sadly can’t be a bumblebee keeper. I am glad you enjoyed the post, it was a little tongue-in cheek, but please be careful when moving bumblebees into the sun not to get stung (wear gloves or gently pick them up with leaves).

      That is an interesting question. I will try to answer, but I know more about honeybees. When queen bumblebees hatch they fly out and mate in summer. The sperm is then stored in their abdomen while they burrow underground over winter. In spring, queen bumblebees emerge and find a place to make a new nest in which they then lay their eggs. The life cycle of bumblebees is actually more similar to wasps than honeybees.

      This brilliant video by the BBC explains the answer to your question much better than me. And it is lovely to watch.

      • Thanks.
        i always liked them because of shape and color, plus they fly kind of funny.

        Now I like them even more for not being so organized, a little like me.

        Thanks for the link too 🙂

        Perfect love!

    • Bumblebees are so fuzzy and funny, shame we can’t ‘keep’ them but they are a bit unruly 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it, do check out the Bumblebee Trust website which has lots of interesting bee facts.

      • Thanks for the link. I managed to capture a few good photos of bumblebees today. Bees are hard work to photograph.

    • They’re funny little things and weird that bumbles share more in common with wasps in terms of life cycle. I’d love to beekeep bumbles but they’re not as hardworking as my honeybees 🙂

  2. We have a colony of tree bumblebees in the wall of our Victorian House and the dining room has developed a strong smell – this smell is also emitting through the floor boards in the bedroom above too – it’s a bit like cat wee mixed with butterscotch. Is this the nest and will it go when the nest dies out? Although I love the bees I’m not keen on the smell! X

    • Mmm. I haven’t heard of bumble bee nests giving off bad smell. Do you have any blue bottles in the house at all? I wonder if perhaps a mouse or something died in a cavity – not unusual for older houses. Otherwise I’ll ask at my apiary if others know about smells associated with bumble bee nests. The bumbles don’t make much honey and shouldn’t make much waste to make your home smell. The nest itself should die out at the end of summer to early autumn.

      • Hi, we have the same issue as Sam: a bumble bee best underneath our front room (bumbles using the holes in the air brick as their front door), and we’ve recently noticed a cat wee kind of smell in the front room. Nothing else we can think of that it could be. Could it possibly be from our little lodgers? Cheers!

  3. Have a nest of tree bees in my wall cavity above back door which is a bit incovenient. If I leave them and fill the whole end of November will it kill any eggs or bees?

  4. I have seen white tailed bees entering a small hole in the sunny wall of my house, there’s literally only a handful that are seen going in and out throughout the day, busy doing whatever they’re doing! I wondered will it stay just a handful or will more and more come to join? My neighbour has a swarm buzzing around an air vent brick in the wall of her house and I’m hoping mine isn’t going to end up the same. I’m a coward when it comes to flying insects but wouldn’t harm them and willing to leave the nest until it’s vacated come autumn. Will this type of bee with the white bums definitely vacate come the end of summer? Please tell me they won’t be making their way into my house making the space they need bigger and bigger! great article by the way.

  5. As I sit and watch bumble bees at work on flowers and clover, I read this fascinating informative article. New Zealand didn’t have bumble bees and when clover was introduced by the early settlers they also brought the bumble bee to pollinate the clover.

  6. I am serious afraid of bumblebees. My son at age two was playing outside. I notice several bumblebees surrounding him. As I ran and grabbed him running into the house all 3 bees followed me inside and attacked me on my back. When they were done with me. They politely flew back outside. Not to be heard from again. Now whenever I see a bumblebee I run and they chase. WHY?

    • Sorry for your bee scare Sharon. It’s unusual, perhaps you were a near a nest, but still unusual. Nevertheless it’s important to put your child’s safety first so I’m glad that you got back to the house in time.

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