As essential parts of our ecosystem, bumblebees can survive in harsh climates where other insects cannot. Bumblebees can generate heat by shivering their flight muscles, which helps them to warm up before the sun rises. Moreover, the pattern of bands on bumblebees indicates the species. These bumblebee facts are just two of many, and we will discuss them all in this article.
Bumblebees are a distinct bee species with a furry appearance and a unique pollination technique called 'buzz pollination.' They belong to the Bombus genus and live mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. Moreover, they have a fuzzy exterior, which helps bumblebees harvest nectar and pollen efficiently from flowering plants, enabling the growth of gardens.
When bumblebees pollinate flowers, they shake their wings quickly, causing pollen to burst out for the bees to gather.
Additionally, each colony has a queen, her workers, and drones. These bees communicate through tactile signals and pheromones; their language of touch and scent that keeps the community functioning smoothly.
Despite their plump bodies and tiny wings, bumblebees can zoom around at impressive speeds. Additionally, their specialized tongue allows them to sip nectar from flowers that other bees cannot reach.
Unlike honey bees, bumblebees do not produce honey due to their unique biology and lifestyle. When autumn arrives, all bumblebees except for new queens die off. The queens have a slower metabolism and live longer than other bumblebees.
During the winter, bumblebee queens hibernate to survive. Also, unlike honeybees, they don't need to hoard honey to sustain themselves through the winter. Since bumblebee queens have a longer lifespan, they can emerge in the spring without living on a honey stash.
Bumblebees relish nectar like honeybees but only do a little with it beyond immediate consumption. While honeybees turn surplus nectar into honey, bumblebees don't. Instead, they enjoy their hard-earned nectar on the spot, leaving no chance for it to turn into honey.
Bumblebees can fly 33 kilometers per hour, flapping their wings more than 130 times per second, a testament to their physical prowess.
The flight pattern of a bumblebee is complex and involves a figure-eight motion of its wings, giving the animal the necessary lift and control to fly.
Additionally, bumblebees have a mechanism called 'clap and fling' where their wings meet at the top of a stroke, creating vortices that provide further lift. By adjusting the speed and width of their wingbeats, bumblebees can hover and move with precision, though they look like they're zig-zagging in the air. However, this motion is not due to intoxication but rather a tactic used to evade predators.
Bumblebees can sting multiple times due to their smooth, barbless stinger. Unlike honeybees, they do not die after stinging. Only the worker bees and queens can sting. This trait may surprise those who believe all bumblebees are aggressive.
Moreover, they are generally peaceful and only sting when their bumblebee nests or queens are in danger. While they've gained an undeserved reputation as aggressive creatures, their sting can cause pain and inflammation due to the venom called melittin.
Bumblebee venom only causes temporary discomfort for most people. However, those with allergies may experience severe reactions.
Related: Natural bee repellents.
Next on our bumblebee facts list: Bumblebees can regulate their body temperature, which most garden animals cannot do. This biological thermostat allows them to function in varying cold or hot temperatures2.
In the morning, bumblebees can fly despite the heavy dew and cool air by increasing their body heat by 30 degrees Celsius above the surrounding temperature. They shiver their wings to generate heat and absorb solar radiation. On the other hand, bumblebees can also cool off by stretching their legs and spreading their wings to let heat dissipate, similar to opening windows on a hot day.
Additionally, their wings flap at 200 beats per second, which aids in regulating their body temperature. Queen bees also use this technique to maintain a perfect temperature in their brood cells for their offspring to thrive.
Did you know the world's largest bumblebee species is the endangered Bombus dahibomii, which is 1.6 inches long?
Within the social structure of bumblebees is a system of order and hierarchy. For instance, the queen bee is the only bee who can lay fertilized eggs, making her the ruling monarch of the hive.
When spring arrives, the queen builds up the colony by laying eggs, caring for her offspring, and looking for food. (Only the cuckoo bumblebee doesn't build nests but steals them from other bubbles.) The queen's role sits at the top of the hive, and all the other bees rely on her for their survival.
When the first generation of worker bees emerge, they adopt specific roles within the hive. These workers are exclusively female; their only tasks are gathering food, caring for the young, and protecting the hive from potential threats. Conversely, male bees, or drones, focus on mating with the queen.
However, when the queen dies, the colony may fall into chaos. In such situations, worker bees may lay eggs, resulting in a new queen and the beginning of a new cycle.
In a hive, the queen can control the sex of her offspring. Her fertilized eggs hatch into worker bees under her care. On the other hand, her unfertilized eggs result in male bumblebees or drones.
As summer transitions into autumn, the queen produces both males and females capable of reproducing. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees don't fight to the death when selecting a new queen. Newly developed queens leave their birthplace after mating, hibernate during winter, and emerge in spring to start their colonies.
Bumblebees transfer pollen from one flower to another using "buzz pollination," which allows various plant species to reproduce. They shake their bodies as they visit a flower, causing the pollen to fall off. Moreover, this method is essential for pollinating crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and blueberries. As bumblebees pollinate flowers, they also help feed and protect other wildlife.
Many bumblebee species are "vulnerable" or "endangered," according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some examples of endangered bumblebee species are the variable cuckoo bumblebee and the rusty patched bumblebee.
Various factors contribute to this decline, primarily environmental changes and human activities. As cities expand, destroying forests, bumblebees struggle to find food and nesting sites. Additionally, climate change disrupts the delicate balance between bees and plants, limiting and scattering their floral supply1.
Meanwhile, pesticides also affect bumblebees; using neonicotinoids in modern farming has caused adverse effects on bumblebee colonies, such as stunted growth and increased death rates. Additionally, foreign species like the European honeybee can harbor new diseases that ravage bumblebee hives; they also compete for food. (Cuckoo bumblebees are invasive species that invade and steal a bumblebee nest.)
Losing these threatened species could negatively affect the environment and threaten our food production, emphasizing the need for bumblebee conservation.
Further reading: Are Bees Endangered? And Reasons to Protect Them.
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Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with B.
Kerr, J. T., Pindar, A., Galpern, P., Packer, L., Potts, S. G., Roberts, S. M., Rasmont, P., Schweiger, O., Colla, S. R., Richardson, L. L., Wagner, D. L., Gall, L. F., Sikes, D. S., & Pantoja, A. (2015). Climate change impacts on bumblebees converge across continents. Science, 349(6244), 177-180.
Heinrich, B. (1972). Physiology of brood incubation in bumblebee queens. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Physiology, 41(3), 673-687.