I heart bumblebees! Part One: Cool facts about Bumblebees.

Mar 11, 2009 by

So, I was speaking with a colleague the other day who just happens to have a family history in beekeeping. Her father (if I'm correct) is a third generation beekeeper and also an etymologist. Anyway, we were talking about her family's bee business when she mentioned that over 5 species of bumblebees had disappeared in the U.K. recently. 5 species? That surprised me, so of course--since I teach research writing and I'm into bees--I had to go and research the fact. I found two articles that talked about this phenomenon. One was titled "To Be or Not to Bee..." by Marianna H. Horn and Peter G. Kevan and another (not so subtly named) was called "The Demise of the Bumblebee in Britain," by David Goulson. Both articles had some enlightening things to say about bumblebees--not just why they are disappearing (which may give some clues as to why honeybees are disappearing as well), but also just some wonderful info about the lovely bumblebee in general. So, let's start there. Some neat facts about the bumblebee from their articles:
  • Bumblebees belong to the genus Bombus that includes many rare species with highly diverse ecologies. Honeybees belong to the genus Apis.
  • Bumblebees are the larger, hairier variety of bee, often colorful as well. Honeybees, by contrast, are described by Goulson as "smaller, slender, drab, and relatively hairless." (Guess who is a little biased towards the bumblebee? I'd say Goulson, but he's starting to win me over too.)
  • Bumblebees, like honeybees, feed solely on flower nectar and pollen for their energy and protein.
  • There are only 240 species of bumblebees worldwide (contrasted with thousands of bee species in general), and they are found mostly in the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic to the tropics.
  • Bumblebees are endotherms, which means that they can warm themselves by contracting and releasing their flight muscles, also known as "shivering," which allows them to endure cooler temperatures than most bees.
  • Bumblebees are social creatures--like honeybees. But instead of living in a hive, they live in abandoned animal burrows, or (and I LOVE this phrase) in grassy tussocks. (Basically a section of grass that grows a bit higher and more thickly than the rest.)
  • The colonies that the bumblebees live in consist of about 400 worker bees (all female) with one queen. To contrast, a typical cultivated hive of honeybees has about 60,000 bees.
  • Bumblebees can be much more specialized than their honeybee cousins in terms of what they pollinate. One species of bumblebee, for example, only pollinates plants in the pea family. This is what makes them more susceptible to extinction though because if that species dies off or isn't planted, then the bee is likely to die with it.
  • Bumblebees aren't very aerodynamic, so flying demands a lot of energy. Goulson gives this great analogy. Apparently, it's been calculated that a running man consumes a Mars bar worth of energy in about 30 minutes. By contrast, a honeybee would use that same amount of energy (in bee portions) in about 30 seconds of flight. Thus, he concludes, a nest of about 400 bees would need a lot of food.
  • Bumblebees do have stingers, but they're not barbed like a honeybee's. They can sting multiple times if necessary.
Finally--and this is from my personal experience, you can pet bumblebees! I don't recommend, it, but I remember spending time with my good friend Leaf in college, and he saw a bumblebee and leaned over and pet her as she sat on a flower. It was the sweetest thing. He said that she didn't have a stinger, which was wrong, they do, but they don't tend to sting unless their nest is threatened. Anyway, I have a huge crush on bumblebees now. Next up--why they're dying and what we can do to save them! (And then I swear we're going back to top bar hives! I just got so enamored all of a sudden and couldn't resist!) Lastly--isn't this photo of a bumblebee the cutest friggin' photo you've ever seen? She's waving at us. I almost cried. References: Goulson, D. (2006, December). Demise of the bumblebee in Britain. Biologist. Volume 53, Number 6, 294-299. Retrieved March 04, 2009. Horn, M., Kevan, P. (Date unknown.) To Bee or Not to Bee. Journal Unknown. Retrieved March 04, 2009.

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  1. The Gardner Team

    This is very interesting. My father showed me how to pet bumblebees when I was a little girl!

  2. Jennie Durant

    How fun! Stay tuned for the next couple blogs about bumblebees for some more cool facts. Thanks for commenting!

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