Of the over 20,000 species of bee, more than 250 are bumble bees (Bombus sp.). Unlike the honey bee, which is a transplant from Europe, some bumble bee species are native to North America. In fact, there are 49 different bumble bee species in the United States alone.
While many people are more familiar with the honey bee, bumble bees also serve an important role in pollination for wild plants and crops alike. Bumble bees can pollinate some plants that honey bees cannot.
They perform a special behavior called “buzz pollination”, in which they grasp a flower with their mouths and vibrate their wings rapidly. They can beat their wings over 130 times per second. This produces a buzzing sound (hence the name) and shakes pollen from the flower. This behavior is critical to plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, and kiwis.
Bumble bees primarily nest underground (often in abandoned rodent holes) but sometimes establish a colony in aboveground cavities (e.g., hollow logs, holes in trees, or even drier vents). Where honey bees establish giant colonies of tens of thousands of individuals, bumble bee colonies only number in the hundreds.
They are active throughout the spring and summer when the female worker bees forage and provision the nest, concurrently pollinating various plant species. As autumn begins, males and future queens are produced and they leave the nest to find mates. The fertilized females go into hibernation when the cold sets in while the males and unfertilized females perish.
Bumble bees differ from honey bees in quite a few ways. But, do they also differ in that most famous of honey bee roles? Do bumble bees produce honey?
Do bumble bees make honey?
The short answer is no. Bumble bees visit flowers to collect nectar, much of which they consume. Some, however, they store in the empty cocoons from which worker bees hatched. This nectar is similar to honey, but not the same product.
Honey is produced when honey bees pass nectar to each other over and over, each bee removing more moisture from the nectar. Honey has about half as much moisture as nectar. This honey is then stored in the cells of the honey bee hive to feed baby bees.
Honey is produced so that it can be stored long-term, while nectar is only stored for short periods of time.
Unlike honey bees, there is no bumble bee honey and no such thing as a bumble bee honeycomb.
Why don’t bumble bees make honey?
Bumble bees don’t make honey mainly because they don’t have to. Their colonies don’t persist as long as honey bee colonies, which need provisions throughout the winter.
Bumble bee colonies die off at the end of the summer and only the future queens survive – in hibernation, a state in which food is unnecessary. Because most plants also die at the end of the summer, honey bees can’t forage during the winter months and need their honey stores to survive.
Bumble bee beekeeping
Since bumble bees don’t produce honey, is there any reason to keep them like honey bees? Actually, yes. And it’s not for their nectar.
Honey bee colonies are gigantic, tens of thousands of bees in a single hive. Each honey bee produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her life. Multiplied by tens of thousands, that’s a lot of honey. It’s enough that humans can and do harvest some of it. However, even if individual bumble bees collected the same amount of nectar (or produced the same amount of honey), there would not be nearly enough for human consumption.
Humans keep bumble bees for a different reason: their superior pollination skills. In fact, by 2016 – just 50 years after publication of the first paper on raising bumble bees – more than 1 million bumble bee colonies were managed annually across the globe.
There may be as many as 2 million today. Not only are there more varieties of bumble bees with greater variation in tongue length (meaning they can pollinate a wider variety of plants), but they can pollinate plants that honey bees can’t. Remember buzz pollination?
Furthermore, they are active for longer periods of the year and day than honey bees, emerging as early as February and dying off as late as November. They also leave the nest earlier in the morning and return later in the evening. They can also withstand worse weather than honey bees while foraging. This makes them important ecologically, but also crucial to food production worldwide.
Bumble bees are an important insect for natural habitats and gardens throughout North America and beyond. They pollinate a wide variety of flowers and can even pollinate some species that other bees can’t through a process known as buzz pollination. However, they don’t produce honey.
Rather, they store nectar for short periods of time in the cocoons of hatched workers. This and their ability to buzz pollinate set them apart from their famous cousins, the honey bees. Despite the fact that they don’t make honey, beekeepers still rear bumble bees for their utility as pollinators. They are just as important for the world’s food supply as honey bees, if not more so.