Bumblebees

Common Name:
Bumblebees
Scientific Name:
Bombus
Type:
Invertebrates
Diet:
Herbivore
Group Name:
Colony
Average Life Span:
A few weeks to one year
Size:
0.4 to 1.6 inches

What is a bumblebee?

Bumblebees are furry, round insects that live mostly in temperate climates in the Northern Hemisphere. There are more than 250 species of bumblebees, belonging to the genus Bombus (honeybees belong to the genus Apis.) The largest bumblebee species, Bombus dahlbomii, can grow to be an inch and a half in length. Bumblebees are distinctive for their fuzzy, pile-covered bodies and bold colors, which helps them ward off predators. Unlike honeybees, they don’t make honey, as they don’t need to store food for winter—they typically live a year, at most.

Bumblebees are among the most important pollinators. They excel at spreading pollen and fertilizing many types of wild plants, as well as important agricultural crops like tomatoes, blueberries, and squash. They can fly in cooler temperatures than other bees, which makes them well suited to pollinating mountain habitats, coastal plains, and even Arctic tundra.

Life cycle and social structure

Queens emerge from hibernation underground in the spring and find a nest site, which can often be an old rodent burrow. The queen lays and incubates several broods of eggs over the course of spring and summer, which she keeps warm by generating heat with her wings. The eggs hatch and grow into worker bees, with the ones born earlier in the season caring for the younger ones. 

Colonies can be as small as 50 individuals—much smaller than honeybee colonies, which can number in the tens of thousands. The final generation of eggs, which comes around late summer, produces queens for next season and males for them to mate with. By fall, colonies typically die out, and the new fertilized queens go underground to burrow through winter.

Behavior

Different species of bumblebees have different-length tongues, which they use for reaching pollen in plants. This variation allows bumblebees to pollinate a wide variety of plants. The bees’ large size and unique buzzing vibration enables them to shake pollen out of some plants, like tomatoes and blueberries, where it is otherwise hard to reach.

Bumblebees also have unique ways to communicate with each other. When worker bees return from a successful foraging trip, they do an extended “dance” inside the nest—running in erratic circles—which can last for several minutes. This signals to their nestmates to go out to find food themselves.

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees can sting multiple times because their stingers don’t have barbs. But bumblebees don’t tend to be aggressive to humans unless provoked.

About 29 species of bumblebees, called cuckoos, are parasites. The queens don’t build nests and have lost the ability to produce worker bees or rear colonies of their own. Instead, a cuckoo bumblebee queen feeds directly from plants and invades an established bumblebee nest, killing the queen, laying her own eggs, and forcing the old queen’s workers (by physical force or using pheromones) to feed her and care for her young. After her eggs hatch, her young leave the colony to mate and she leaves to seek out other nests to attack.

Threats to survival

Bumblebees are in trouble. A 2020 study looked at 66 species across North America and Europe and found that the insects are far less common than they used to be. In North America, you are nearly 50 percent less likely to see a bumblebee in any given area than you were prior to 1974. Research by the Xerces Society, a nonprofit focused on the conservation of insects, and the IUCN Bumble Bee Specialist Group, finds that 28 percent of all North American bumblebees are facing some degree of extinction risk.

Scientists have found a direct link between this decline and climate change. In areas that have become hotter in the last generation or have experienced more extreme temperature swings, bumblebees are less abundant. Bumblebees are also threatened by widespread use of pesticides, destruction of habitat, urban development, the conversion of wildlands into farmland, the spread of pathogens, and the release of non-native bees for commercial pollination.

Conservation efforts

Two species of bumblebees—the rusty-patched bumblebee and the newly listed Franklin’s bumblebee—are classified as officially endangered in the U.S. The Franklin’s bumblebee, once abundant, has not been spotted since 2006. The Endangered Species Act listing means that, in addition to broadly prohibiting any actions that could harm the bees, there is federal funding available for state-level recovery initiatives, including expanded search efforts.

By planting native flowers and avoiding the use of toxic pesticides like neonicotinoids, people can help protect bumblebees in their own backyards. Protecting and planting new green spaces in urban areas can also help provide bumblebees shade and shelter from extreme heat.

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