The bumblebee is a flying insect of the genus Bombus in the family Apidae and a relative of the common honeybee. The bumblebee feeds on nectar and gathers pollen to feed its young. They are beneficial to humans and the plant world alike, and tend to be larger than other members of the bee family. Most bumblebee species are gentle. From this comes their original name: “Humblebee”.
Bumblebees are social insects that are known for their black and yellow striped bodies, a commonality among the majority of the species of Bombus; however, some species are known to have orange or even red on their bodies. Another distinctive characteristic is a hair-like substance (called pile) that covers their entire body. This pile serves to make them appear and feel fuzzy. Although their sting is not barbed, like that of the honeybee, queen and worker bumblebees can sting more than once.
One long-held myth surrounding the bumblebee was that it did not have the capacity to achieve flight. In terms of theoretical aerodynamics (wing size and beats per second) it was believed to not be able to handle the degree of wing loading necessary to fly. This myth became popular in the 1930s after an aerodynamicist stated that a bumblebee was not capable of flight. This statement was based upon the assumption that the bee’s wing could be treated as a static aerofoil. In reality, however, the bumblebee’s flight is characterized by an oscillating wing that shares more characteristics with a helicopter rotor than an airplane wing.
Bumblebees are found typically in higher latitudes ranging from warm to cold climates where other bees might not be found. A common reason for this is that bumblebees can actually regulate their body temperature, via both solar radiation and via internal mechanisms of “shivering” and radiative cooling from the abdomen.
Just like honeybees, bumblebees live in colonies. However, their smaller hives are usually much less extensive than those of honeybees. Bumblebee nests will often hold fewer than 50 individuals, and can be inside ground tunnels made by other animals.
Bumblebees store a few days’ worth of food and are therefore more vulnerable to food shortages than the common honeybee. However, because bumblebees are more opportunistic when feeding than honeybees, these shortages may have less profound effects. Bumblebees mostly do not preserve their nests through the winter, though some tropical species live in their nests for several years. The last generation of summer includes a number of queens who overwinter separately in protected spots.
In the autumn, young queens mate with male drone bees and hibernate over the winter in a sheltered area, whether in the ground or in a man-made structure. The queen awakens in the early spring and finds a suitable place to create her colony. She then builds wax pots in which to lay her fertilized eggs from the previous winter. The eggs that hatch are female workers, and in time the queen populates the colony, with workers feeding the young and performing other duties similarly to honeybee workers.
Bumblebees are very useful to human beings because they can pollinate plant species that other pollinators cannot. This is achieved through a technique known as buzz pollination. For example, bumblebee colonies are often placed in greenhouse tomato production because of the frequency of buzzing that a bumblebee exhibits effectively pollinate tomatoes.
The agricultural use of bumblebees is limited to pollination. Because bumblebees do not overwinter the entire colony, they are not obliged to stockpile honey, and are therefore not useful as honey producers, although the honey is delicious.
Bumblebees are in danger in many developed countries due to habitat destruction and collateral pesticide damage. In Britain, there are 21 species of native bumblebee and six varieties of cuckoo bees – bees that dupe other bumblebees into looking after their young. Of these, only six bumblebees remain widespread; five are in serious decline and at least three are extinct.
Bumblebees are increasingly cultured for agricultural use as pollinators.
Photo taken by Mark Burnett