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Bumble bee answers every beekeeper needs

Bumble bees are among the earliest bees of spring, so it won’t be long before beekeepers begin to hear the inevitable questions. Honey bee keepers, it seems, are expected to know all the answers, so here’s a short refresher to get you started.

Where do bumble bees go in winter?

Bumble bee colonies do not survive through the winter except in very warm climates. Normally, a colony begins to raise both queens and males in late summer. Once a virgin queen mates, she fattens up for the winter and seeks a sheltered place to hibernate until spring, much like a bear. She may burrow into the ground or, depending on the species, she may select a warm and secure above-ground cavity. The remainder of the colony dies, usually with the first hard freeze.

Do bumble bees live in hives?

Bumble bees do not live in man-made hives the way honey bees do. Most bumble bee species live in an underground cavity. Usually these holes were dug, and later abandoned, by a mammal such as a mouse. In early spring after the queens emerge from hibernation, you can often see them scouring the ground, looking for the perfect nesting spot. Some species prefer above-ground accommodations, such as birdhouses, mailboxes, or slash piles. Occasionally, you can coax a queen to nest in a specially-designed bumble bee box, but it is difficult.

Do bumble bees swarm?

Although bumble bees live together in colonies headed by a queen, the colony does not divide and swarm the way a honey bee colony does. Instead, colony reproduction occurs in the fall when new queens are produced for the following year.

How long does a bumble bee live?

A queen bumble bee emerges in the fall, mates, hibernates, and raises a colony. The entire cycle lasts one year and then she dies. The other bees in the colony—the workers and the males—live much shorter lives. The workers can live perhaps two to three months, but the males die soon after mating.

What does a bumble bee eat?

Bumble bees are generalists when it comes to food, drinking nectar and collecting pollen from a wide variety of flowering plants. The nectar is consumed for energy, while the pollen is used as a protein source. Much like honey bees, the workers feed pollen mixed with glandular secretions to the young larvae.

Do bumble bees sting?

Female bumble bees, both queens and workers, can deliver a powerful sting. Unlike honey bees, the females can sting repeatedly. Their sharp, smooth stinger can easily slide back out of tough skin in preparation for delivering the next punch. Male bumble bees, just like all other male bees, cannot sting because they don’t have a stinger.

How do you collect their honey?

The queen bumble bee stores a small quantity of honey in wax pots that she builds inside the nest. She works hard to fill these pots with nectar so that when she starts to raise brood, she can stay in the nest until the first brood reaches maturity. Much like a broody hen, she careful tends her young family, keeping the developing bees warm with her body. The honey in the pots may be her entire food supply while she raises the first workers.

Unlike honey bees, bumble bees do not collect surplus nectar and have no need for a winter food supply. The small amount of nectar used by the queen is not enough to collect and, in any case, taking it might destroy the new colony.

Are bumble bees endangered?

All bee species are endangered to some extent, although some are more imperiled than others. Bumble bees have been particularly hard hit by habitat loss, pesticides, imported diseases, and a lack of forage. It is best not to kill any bumble bee, especially if you don’t know the species. A number of once-common bumble bees are now on the brink of extinction, so give them the benefit of the doubt and let them carry on.

Do bumble bees get colony collapse disorder?

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a term used to describe a honey bee problem. Because honey bees and bumble bees are so different, the term CCD does not apply to bumble bees. Most notably, bumble bee colonies do not overwinter so annual colony losses, as measured by beekeepers, do not occur.

However, some of the conditions thought to cause colony collapse, also affect bumble bees. Introduced diseases and parasites, lack of good-quality forage, loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, pollution, climate change, and pesticides have all been suspects in colony decline and each of these affect bumble bees as well as honey bees.

Do bumble bees get Varroa mites?

Bumble bees are not bothered by Varroa destructor because the life styles and life cycles of these two species are very different. However, bumble bees have their own array of mites to contend with. Luckily, most of these mite species are relatively harmless to bumble bees. Although they latch on to bees for transportation to a new nest, they feed on bits of pollen and other nest debris instead of on the bees themselves.

You can often see mites clinging to foraging bumble bees. Single mites, or sometimes whole groups, ride the bee. The mites then jump off onto a flower where they await the arrival of another bee to carry them to a new nest.

The flower becomes an airport, of sorts, where mites flip through their messages and impatiently wait for a connecting flight. Sometimes, though, a mite infestation can become so heavy that a bumble bee has trouble flying. This may be temporary until the mites jump off, but in the meantime, the flight-impaired bee may succumb to predators like birds or frogs, or it may weaken, unable to gather food.

I found a bumble bee that cannot fly. What should I do?

Usually, nothing can be done for a bumble bee in distress. Things we can’t see may be affecting her health, including diseases, internal parasites, or poisoning. If the bees’ wings are tattered or her hair is worn, she might be dying of old age.

Still, sometimes a bee is just momentarily stranded and a little TLC can get her going again. I’ve seen bees fly into windows like birds and remain stunned for many minutes before they fly off. Or, if a bee is grounded due to mites, you can gently brush them off. If it’s energy she needs, you can dissolve a spoonful of sugar into a couple spoonfuls of water and put some right in front of her.

How can I help bumble bees?

All bees need the same things: a continuous supply of flowers, water, nesting habitat, and nesting materials. So the best way to help bees is to make sure those things are available. Grow lots of different flowering plants, especially those native to your area. Make sure you have a source of water, even if it’s just a drippy hose or leaky faucet. Leave patches of landscape unmowed so bees can find safe places to live and grassy materials to use in their nest. Above all, stop the use of insecticides and herbicides: fewer chemicals in the environment make the planet better for everyone.

Now you are ready

Okay, beekeepers, now you are ready to go forth and answer questions about bumble bees. And for an excellent book about the these amazing creatures, I highly recommend A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson. The author is a world authority on bumble bees and an excellent writer. He makes everything about these bees fun to learn.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Mites-on-a-bumble
The two tan-colored objects on this bumble bee’s thorax are mites. Most bumble bee mites are harmless to the bee and actually eat nest debris. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

John Hayter
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Informative and entertaining as ever. I can second the recommendation for Dave Goulson’s book. His story about trying to humanely kill a Turkish bumblebee colony in the freezer stays in my memory for what it reveals about these amazing little animals.

Rusty
Reply

John,

It’s funny that you mention that particular story from Goulson’s book. I think I’ve mentioned it at least two or three times in different posts I’ve written about temperature regulation and social bees. It’s an amazing tale.

O. Vasquez
Reply

First class as always. So much information in such a small space. Great job Rusty!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you!

Pedro
Reply

Bumble bees are the cutest things, they are like the teddy bears of the bee world.

I have never been stung by one and I always feel like they are pacifists and it would take a lot of hassling to get stung. I know they can but I feel they are much less likely go do it than honey bees.

Rusty
Reply

Pedro,

I’ve never been stung by a bumble bee, but I knew a professor of agronomy who used to talk a lot about them. As a kid, he had to disk and plow the fields on his family’s farm. He said every now and then he would hit an underground bumble bee nest and the bees would come after him with a vengeance, following the tractor and inflicting some of the worst stings he ever had. Plowing, I think, would meet your definition of “a lot of hassling.” I agree with you that, on a normal basis, they are friendly and cute.

Pedro
Reply

I wonder if their predisposition to use their stinger varies a lot between species.

My partner was stung once. Around sunset, we were harvesting wild oregano that grows abundant here and a worker was attached to one of the plants, maybe it was too cold for it to fly to the nest by then. He grabbed the bumblebee together with the plant and got stung. I guess hassled also applies here!

On a different matter, last year, early spring I think, you were faced with hives facing starvation because of colonies coming out of hibernation too soon and not finding enough food, if I remember correctly. You considered your choices and I think you ended doing a lot of feeding. Was there a follow up post I missed? Were there consequences for the bees or it all went back to business as usual?

Rusty
Reply

Pedro,

Basically, it went back to business as usual, but I had to do a lot of feeding that I don’t normally do. I nearly lost one colony because I missed a couple days of feeding, and it suffered a huge population loss. I felt terrible about it. Somehow it managed to hang in there, but it didn’t thrive like the others and I ended up combining it in the fall.

mj
Reply

Just want to thank you for the info you share. This info on the Bumblebee is very interesting. I enjoy watching them here in upstate NY, as much as our honeybees. Thanks again.

Rusty
Reply

mj,

You are very welcome!

Jan Olsson
Reply

Very beautiful picture of a bumblebee. With light brown pollen and two mites riding her back.

I worked with Apis Cerana in India for 15 years. They also have lots of mites, including Varroa destructor, against which they have very good resistance, but most of them are flower living mites, who simply uses bees and other insects to change to new flowers. And Yes! they can become so numerous that the bees become unable to fly. But the mites don’t hurt the bees directly, they just use them for transport when the old flower wilts and a new flower is needed.

Honey bees also have various kinds of mites that don’t seem to harm them.

Thanks for the post, Rusty

Jan Olsson, Denmark

Rusty
Reply

Jan,

The entire subject of what lives in, on, and with bees is something I’d like to know more about. We tend to concentrate on the “bad” ones, but so many are mutually beneficial.

Ray
Reply

Lovely Rusty, thank you. I am lucky to have an abundance of various bumbles in my UK garden. I give them all the support they need, flowers, nests etc and also encourage solitary bees in the same way with nesting boxes, plus of course my honey bees! What can I say, I just love all bees!!

Rusty
Reply

Ray,

Sounds a lot like my place. Like you, I do whatever I can.

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Good info, Rusty! I couldn’t make a living gardening without bumbles. So, home gardener tip:

Bumble bees love Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) whose florets are mostly too deep for honey bees’ tongues. Sow red clover around the perimeter of your garden, and it will attract bumble bees who will then be more likely to notice your eggplant, tomatoes and peppers when they need pollination.

I have “driveways” or sod strips between garden plots, to keep from running the mower over tilled soil. These are planted in Ladino & Red Clover.

Unrelated note: our unseasonal warm spell this year came just as the Water Maples were blooming, perfect timing for once. For a week, it’s been W.B. Yeats’ “bee-loud glade.”

Have a great bee and garden season, everyone!

Nancy
Northern Ky

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

Great tip about red clover. I immediately put it on my to-do list!

Michael
Reply

Used to have a colony living under the front step. My oldest daughter was a toddler and we would sit and watch, and daughter would run from flower to flower impersonating a bumblebee.

One day, a bumble flew up my t-shirt sleeve and buzzed. Untucked the shirt and shook it so she could fly out. The shaking wasn’t what she wanted and WHAMMO!

I jumped up, took off the t-shirt, shook it vigorously and put it back on. She like that even less. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!

Went inside with no shirt on, lamenting the lack of interspecies cooperation.

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

All that furry cuteness can be deceptive. Good story.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Thanks Rusty.

I had a long story to tell. The gist of it is that once their nest is in place, bumbles are hard to move, one reason being that many bumbles stay out overnight and return the next day. Folks who raise bumbles commercially (I’ve seen it) raise a colony from a mated queen and keep the whole colony confined and fed until it is big enough to move. The folks doing it right only raise local stock and only ship them relatively short distances where they are already native. My untold tale included how I (painfully) learned some truths about moving bumbles.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I have a question. I often see males out all night. I can go out almost any summer evening and find them sleeping in flowers. But how about the females? I’ve always heard they go back inside for the evening, but your comment sounds like maybe some don’t? Could you elaborate?

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Hi Rusty –
Why write a short answer when a long one will suffice, right? Anyway, the short answer is that yes, at least sometimes workers will camp out, and the long answer became a new blog that you prompted. Thanks. Glen
http://olypollinators.blogspot.com/2017/03/do-worker-bumble-bees-camp-out.html
Here is a second one about queen bumble campers from my sister-in-law:
http://olypollinators.blogspot.com/2015/02/bed-and-breakfast-for-bumble-bees.html

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Glen. What a great article! And the video is amazing. I have a lot of B. melanopygus every year. I wish some would nest where I could see them.

Randy
Reply

I have carpenter bees that want to bore holes in my barn beams. How can I get rid of them in a friendly manner? I am a beginning honey bee keeper and quickly learning what not to do. Thank you for any information you can give me. I really enjoy your blog!

Rusty
Reply

Randy,

I don’t have a good answer. Commercial “bee traps” won’t work for you because of your honey bees. Carpenter bees always prefer untreated wood, so if you can paint the beams, that would help. I’m imagining that’s not really an option for barn beams, but thought I’d mention it. Some people try to ward them off with essential oils painted onto the wood. Something like thymol might work to deter them.

I’ve also heard of people who plug the holes, which prevents next year’s batch from emerging in the spring. And some people put out weathered untreated wood as a decoy, to attract them. But again, that seems like wishful thinking. Most folks end up exterminating with some kind of poison, something I wouldn’t want in my barn. It’s a difficult problem. When I was a kid I used to stick my fingers in the holes they drilled in my parent’s picnic table. I thought they were cool, but my parents eventually killed them all and they never came back. They just netted and squashed them without any poison.

Randy
Reply

I have actually painted the barn and stained all the beam supports. The smell of the stain drove some of them away. I also purchased a carpenter bee trap caught quite a few never any honey bees. Sounds like I’m on the right track. Thanks for your friendly advice.

Diego
Reply

Hello Rusty,

Thank you for the informative article. I’ve been considering trying to host a BB nest. I’ve built a fairly simple one. I think they might need good insulation/heat to feel comfortable.

I had these videos saved, these are pretty high class BB hives, in case anyone is interested:

https://youtu.be/JToqIH_1flc
https://youtu.be/lqf7aIhtXLY
(It’s seems to be in Slovakia).

Greetings, Diego.

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Diego. Cool looking houses.

Brenda/the blonde gardener
Reply

Last year, our area saw more bumblebees than I’ve ever seen before. I love all these quick facts and have shared on Facebook. Thanks for taking time to educate us.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Brenda. I’m glad to hear people are interested in bumble bees.

Kathleen
Reply

Hi Rusty, I am a beekeeper, but bumble bees are my latest crush. Thanks for the great article. I talk to so many folks who want to “help the bees” by getting honey bees and keeping them “naturally”–that is to say, “unmanaged.” I try to turn them to creating and improving habit instead, with middling success. I have noticed that one can purchase bumble bee colonies online. Here is a link to a company that is selling Bombus impatiens–and there are others. https://www.planetnatural.com/product/bumble-bees-natupol/ Maybe this would be a good way to help some folks scratch that itch to “keep” bees, without the threat to managed colonies that nearby unmanaged colonies can pose. What do you think?

Rusty
Reply

Kathleen,

One of the reason for decline of bumble bee populations is spread of disease (Nosema bombi) from commercially-raised bumble bees that escaped into the wild. I think it’s more of the same thing. We don’t do ourselves any favors by shipping insects around and then letting them go free. I think it’s best for people to build pollinator housing and then let the local populations move in. It happens quickly and they are fun to watch. Best, it eliminates the shipping (and disease transmission) that goes with it. Another disease that has spread from shipping commercial stock is chalk brood in leafcutting bees.

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