buff-tailed bumblebee, flower background, bee

14 Interesting Facts About Bumblebees

Spread the love

Introduction

Bumblebees are furry, buzzing bees that play a crucial role as pollinators in ecosystems around the world. While they resemble the more familiar honeybee, bumblebees actually have some unique and fascinating traits that set them apart.

From their important place in food production to their ability to generate heat with their tiny bodies, bumblebees continue to captivate scientists and nature lovers alike. Read on for 14 interesting facts about these essential, extraordinary insects.

1. Bumblebees are important pollinators

Bumblebees play a critical role in pollinating wildflowers and many agricultural crops like tomatoes, peppers, and berries. Their “buzz pollination” vibration technique is very effective – it shakes pollen loose from flowers that other bees can’t access. Plants produce more fruit when buzz-pollinated by bumblebees.

In fact, some crops like tomatoes and blueberries rely on bumblebees for adequate pollination. Without them, many species of native plants would decline and important food crops would have greatly reduced yields.

2. They live in small colonies

Bumblebee colonies typically only have 50-500 worker bees, much less than the tens of thousands of bees that can occupy a honey bee hive.

In early spring, the queen emerges from hibernation and finds a nesting site. She lays her first batch of eggs which grow into workers that maintain the nest and collect food. At peak population in mid-summer, a colony may produce new reproductive males and queens.

3. Only females can sting

  • Female worker bees and the queen bee have smooth stingers and can sting multiple times without injury.
  • Male drones do not have stingers at all and cannot sting.

Female bumblebee stingers have fewer barbs than honeybees, so they can sting repeatedly without ripping out part of their abdomen. The venom also contains lower concentrations of compounds like mellitin that make honeybee stings painful.

4. They can fly in cold weather

Bumble bee
Bumble bee

Bumblebees have a remarkable ability to fly in cooler temperatures and lower light conditions than honeybees can tolerate.

They accomplish this by shivering their wing muscles to generate heat and raise their body temperature as high as 86°F. This allows them to forage when it’s too cold, dark, or windy for other bees.

5. They have fast metabolisms

Bumblebees must eat almost constantly to fuel their fast metabolism and activity level. They only have about a 40 minute supply of energy stored in their bodies at any given time.

Nectar from flowers gives them a fast sugar energy boost. Pollen provides protein and nutrients necessary for survival and reproduction. Worker bees will collect pollen and nectar tirelessly all day to satisfy the significant demands of the colony.

6. Some species are declining

Habitat loss, climate change, disease, parasites, and pesticides have caused several bumblebee species to experience severe population declines over the last 20 years.

For example, the rusty patched bumblebee was once very common across 28 American states – its population has plummeted by over 90% since the 1990s. It was declared an endangered species in 2017.

Declining Bumblebee SpeciesEstimated Population Decline
Rusty patched bumblebee91%
Western bumblebee60%
Yellowbanded bumblebee98%

7. The largest species lives in South America

The giant bumblebee (Bombus dahlbomii) found in Chile and Argentina holds the record as the world’s largest bumblebee species.

These queens grow over 1.5 inches long – approximately the size of a large grape! They need their huge bodies to vibrate the large trumpet-shaped flowers they pollinate.

Giant bumblebee

Giant bumblebee – Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

8. Their nests are often underground

Bumblebees usually build nests in abandoned rodent burrows or under compost piles, grass tussocks, and sheds where the insulation of the ground keeps the colony warm.

Nests contain wax honey pots and brood cells for larvae. Workers travel up to several miles from the nest each day to visit flowering plants. At night, they return to the safety of their hidden underground nest.

9. New queens hibernate through winter

In the fall, fertilized new queens feed heavily to build up fat reserves and dig 1-6 inches into soil or leaf litter to hibernate through winter. They reduce their heart rate from 350 beats per minute to just 10 bpm.

In early spring, emerging queens look for nest sites where they can start laying eggs. Each impregnated queen becomes the progenitor of her own colony.

10. They can detect electric fields

Bumblebees can sense the natural electric fields that surround flowers. They use this ability to determine if a flower still has nectar by detecting if another bee recently visited it.

The electric field gets disrupted after a bee feeds, so bumblebees avoid wasting energy on recently drained flowers. Scientists believe they detect electric changes using touch receptors on their feet.

11. They inspired military aircraft design

Bumblebee on a flower
Bumblebee on a flower

Aerospace engineers studied the unique wing structure and short, stubby wings of bumblebees to help model parts of planes like the Harrier jump jet. Scientists once thought bumblebees violating the rules of flight engineering, but now they understand how they generate sufficient lift.

The key lies in the rapid flapping of their wings – over 200 beats per second! This fast movement creates little tornadoes of air that provide enough lift force to enable bumblebees to fly.

12. Their wings beat over 200 times per second

The rapid wing beats of bumblebees, along with their large bodies, create the loud buzzing vibrations we hear. Their wings can beat over 200 times per second – creating enough power to shake pollen loose from flowers.

The middle segments of bumblebee wings actually bend and twist to create this optimal buzz pollination frequency. Their wing muscles have evolved to enable these complex high-speed contractions.

13. Some steal nectar by biting holes in flowers

Certain bumblebees act as “nectar robbers” by using their mandibles as a tool to bite holes at the base of flowers and steal nectar. They bypass the reproductive parts of the flowers and take the reward without pollinating.

These bumblebees are often following behavior learned from observing other bees robbing nectar. They steal from deep tubed flowers rather than gathering pollen the more mutualistic way.

14. Bumblebee species cover a range of tongue lengths

There are over 250 species of bumblebees globally. One key difference between them is tongue length, which has evolved to match the depths of certain flowers. Some have tongues less than a quarter inch, while others exceed half an inch.

Conclusion

While tiny, bumblebees have immense power to help both ecosystems and agriculture thrive. Their unique adaptations allow them to fill an important ecological niche as fuzzy, flying pollinators active in cold weather.

Hopefully measures to preserve habitats and nesting sites will take place before more species decline severely. Their role as prolific pollinators is too valuable to lose. The next time you hear a buzzing sound, take a closer look – you might observe one of these 14 fascinating bumblebee facts in action!


Spread the love

Similar Posts