My brother was at a farmer’s market in North Carolina this weekend. A vendor was selling a thimble-full of honey for $10. Maybe slightly more than a thimble. The seller told my brother that you wouldn’t smother a pancake with this special honey. It was medicinal. It was made by Central American bumblebees. I forgot to ask why it was ‘medicinal’ – was there some particular illness it was intended to cure? But that’s off-topic for today’s blog post.
I’ve never eaten bumblebee honey. Nor has my brother – he didn’t buy it. The man selling the honey claimed that he himself kept bumblebees in Latin America. He harvests a few pots from each nest. Perhaps, but even a few pots seems excessive and, I think, would deplete the bumblebees’ pantry. I could be wrong, of course. Perhaps bumblebees fill their little honey pots with wild abandon. Meanwhile, the beekeeper protects them and gives them a safe nesting spot. That would be OK by me, if it’s true.
Bumblebees don’t make much honey. They gather nectar and pollen like honey bees do, but there are far fewer bumblebees in a nest and they save much less honey/nectar for rainy days. You can see the problem in this picture of a bumblebee nest:
You can see the pots. Each is smaller than a bumblebee. Most of these hold developing larvae, but in time there may also be a few containers of nectar. Bumblebees never store kilograms of honey as honey bees. Bumblebees store mere grams. This is because they have quite different life cycles and don’t need big reserves.
To get through bad times (winters, droughts, nectar scarcities), honey bees eat some of the huge surplus of honey they’ve stored. Even in the winter, there are thousands of honey bee mouths to fill. Bumblebees, however, have a different survival strategy. The have fewer members per colony so they need less stored honey. During really bad times, only a single mated female, a queen, survives in hibernation. When the season improves and flowers bloom, that solitary bumblebee makes a new nest, completely on her own. She fashions a few pots, lays a few eggs, collects a bit of food for her offspring. When her brood becomes adults, they help expand the nest, adding a few more pots. This allows yet more workers to emerge.
By late season, a bumblebee nest may have grown from the solitary queen who established the colony to a group of two or three hundred bees. Meanwhile, the honey bees have built a huge population (50,000 or so). Honey bee workers expand the nest, not the queen. The workers gather the food and feed the larvae, the queen’s main function is egg-laying. She does little else. Honey bees specialize, using divisions of labour, splitting tasks between queens and workers. Bumblebees don’t, at least not on the same scale. Honey bee workers collect a big surplus of food; bumblebees produce a mere pittance.
Bumblebees are threatened. Their numbers are dwindling. If there really are bumblebeekeepers, maybe they can keep those bees alive. But I’d still be uncomfortable partaking more than a few drops of bumblebee honey on the tip of my tongue (just to know what it’s like). For that, I’d gladly pay ten dollars – if I knew a bumblebee colony somewhere in Central America was getting part of the money, at least in the form of a protected nesting site.
I’ll drink to that!
A very interesting post. Part of the bumblebee’s strategy appears to be working long hours in all weather, and flower promiscuity. My teenage honey bees stay in bed until late in the morning, knock-off at 4 pm, and will studiously ignore every flower in the garden if they’ve found something better next door or 2 miles away. And if there’s a nip in the air they’ll stay home. Bumblebees with their woolly coats seem to cope with the cold, but as you say, they don’t have the luxury of the honey bee’s stores.
Just a quick point on bumblebee numbers; in Europe many bumblebee species are indeed in decline, especially the specialist that are adapted to niche habitats. The generalists like the Buff tailed bumblebee are faring better. Here’s a quote from the Status & Trends of European Pollinators report (page 15) “of the 68 bumblebees present in Europe 9 species have an increasing population trend (13.2%), 20 are stable (29.4%), 31 are decreasing (45.6%) and 8 (11.8%) are unknown”. The link to the full report is here:
Click to access STEP%20brochure%20online-1.pdf
Thanks for all this! Great comments. It is the niche-habitat bumblebee that we worry most about, that’s for sure. And thanks for the PDF link!
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Thanks for writing this article. I found it very informative, and I really enjoyed reading it. I stumbled across this while doing some research on bumblebees. You see I have a large bumble bee population that has formed in the eve at the back of my house which is sort of, above where I plant my garden every year. I’ve always known that Bumblebees are a good bee to have around. Knowing that bumblebees and honeybees were the only two that really pollinated flowers and that bumblebees really never bothered people. Although recently (while doing my research) I’ve learned that the bumblebees do have stingers, at least one gender does. I always thought hey didn’t. Anyway, my point is, I would like to remove the Bumblebee population since it’s starting to get pretty scary around my windows and that corner of the backyard. Even now as I look out the window while typing this, I see more than a few bumblebees flying around, 1 even hitting the glass. I don’t want to harm them. I’ve had problems with wasps and yellow jackets, even hornets where I called a local exterminator to take care of. Ironically enough I had two wasp nest removed in the past 2 years around the front of my house. Now the bumble bee population in the back has grown quite large. So can you offer any advice on how to safely move away a bumblebee Nest? I read somewhere that if you sprinkle cinnamon on the nest at night that would work. However, I don’t see a hive anywhere, just two holes in the wood fascia board underneath my gutter (two-story house), that the bees are going in and out of..
Thanks for your note. I have had to remove – sometimes dig up from the ground – several bumble bee nests lately for people who were not comfortable with them. Unfortunately, the bees seldom survive the ordeal. They simply do not maintain their nest well in transit, often killing their queen. (This surprised me because I have moved several thousand honey bee colonies without trouble for the bees.) Since then, in literature searches, I have learned that other researchers usually have similar disappointing experiences.
Bumble bees are extremely important for the health of your backyard flowers and may keep the wasps away, which is why you aren’t seeing that many near the bumble bee area. I’d much rather have bumble bees than wasps around, as wasps can be quite aggressive. Female bumble bees have stingers, which they only use in defense. Although you see them working and it may appear that there are many flying around, they aren’t after you or your family. As long as you don’t get close to the nest and disturb it, they will leave you alone and will pollinate your garden. I’ve never been stung by a bumble bee, except when counting brood and removing tiny bits of pollen for research – at those times, I was literally digging in their nests. I recommend that you not disturb them. Their lifecycle has them build up a summer population, then every bee dies or leaves the nest to hibernate in the late summer or early fall. If you can wait three months, the nest will be abandoned and you can plug the holes so no new settlers can get in next spring.
You mentioned that, “bumblebees and honeybees were the only two that really pollinated flowers,” but in reality, about 20,000 of the world’s bee species pollinate flowers. They all have a role to play.
I want to thank you for this reply. I enjoy learning new things like this. I have always liked Bumblebees (mostly because I, incorrectly, thought they had no stingers). I remember as a kid I would watch them flying around my mom’s rose bushes and I’ve even had some land one I and lust watch them and smile (again I thought they couldn’t sting).
Personally then never scare or bother me, but my family is scared. And when I heard my sister saying she was going to call an exterminator, it bothered me. I was an environmental engineering major & like I said I always never bumblebees were good to have around (although I couldn’t cite all the reasons).
I should not admit this, it’s a little embarrassing. But here goes.
What THOUGHT I know about bumblebees I remember from my 10th grade art teacher. Always telling us that they will never bother you unless you swatted them, that they’re very docile of all the bees, and that they didn’t have any stingers, but if you were to swat at them or their nest they might get agitated and bite you which doesn’t hurt too bad.
I told my sister that but she said even that was too risky to chance happening, that she has to protect her children.
so I thought I would search the net & try to find an alternative way to move them. That what lead me here.
I should mention I have seen the bumblebees nest in the same spot for a few different summers. I just ignored them and never told anyone. Although I do not remember seeing them in the past 2 or 3 summers (which might explain the wasps I had exterminated) but this time there’s way more activity than I can ever remember before.
On a side note, my dam garden is already blooming and I am seeing peppers already, And I haven’t planted anything yet, I don’t know how they, the kale and swiss chard are growing again. (Something else growing too but I’m not sure with it is yet). Nothing usually lasts over the winters we have here in NY. So like, everything is coming back with gusto, even the bumbles.
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Sorry, I don’t know how to edit a post, but in my last one where it said “….flying around my mom’s rose bushes and I’ve even had some land one I and lust watch…”
That should read ….. flying around my mom’s rose bushes and I’ve even had some land ON ME, & I would JUST watch…
UPDATE: Thanks to you RON MIKSHA,for telling me about how the bumble bees keeps wasps away, because when I explained that to my family (and after my sister verified it with a google search) they are OK with leaving the bumblebees alone.
Glad I read this info as I have a Bumblebees nest being built under my porch, I did not want to kill them as the shortage of bees is a shame, as they are needed.
Good to know.
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I know this is an old post, but just to note if you see what looks like bumble bees coming out of holes in the wooden structures (mainly facia boards), they aren’t bumble bees.
They are carpenter bees that bore holes in wood to lay eggs. There’s often a male present guarding the outside entrance to the nest.