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.