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.