15 Buzzworthy Bumblebee Facts

They are some of the most efficient pollinators out there

buzzworthy bumblebee facts with sunflower illustration

Treehugger / Alex Dos Diaz

Known for their large, hairy bodies clad in bands or stripes, bumblebees are some of the most important pollinators on Earth. This type of bee boasts fast-beating wings that help vibrate blossoms until they release large amounts of pollen, a method called "buzz pollination," which helps flowers be more productive. Thanks to their unique pollinating skills, these tiny insects are integral to the survival of many different plant species.

Learn more about these impressive little prodigies with the following 15 unexpected facts about the humble bumblebee.

Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Bumblebee
  • Scientific Name: Bombus
  • Average Lifespan: 28 days
  • IUCN Red List Status: Common eastern bumblebee: least concern; American bumblebee: vulnerable; yellow bumblebee: vulnerable; moscardón: endangered; Franklin's bumble bee: critically endangered; etc.
  • Current Population: Unknown

1. Bumblebees Belong to a Genus of 265 Species

The IUCN SSC Bumblebee Specialist Group recognizes 265 species of bumblebees in the world, but the conservation status of many of them remains unknown. Some species are difficult to determine, as they don't differ much in features. In the U.S., the widely distributed eastern bumblebee is one of the most recognized thanks to its signature yellow and black stripes, but other species are known for having darker coloration and even red stripes.

2. They Do Not Produce Honey

Honeybees collect honey to survive through the winter, but bumblebees don’t need to prepare for the cold because they die in the fall. Only new queen bumblebees hibernate and make it until spring—their naturally depressed metabolism gives them a longer lifespan than the rest of the colony. While wild bumblebees do collect sugary nectar, they always consume it before they have a chance to convert it into honey.

3. They Can Detect the Nutritional Quality of Pollen

Close-up of bumble bee on purple flower

pskeltonphoto / Getty Images

Along with nectar, bumblebees also collect the pollen made by flowers. In 2016, researchers at Penn State found that bumblebees can actually detect the nutritional quality of pollen, an ability that helps them choose the best plant species and optimize their diets. Bees can do this by sensing a chemically complex substance in pollen to determine its nutritional content.

This ability comes in handy, especially considering that pollen makes up a bumblebee’s primary source of protein and lipids (they get their carbohydrates from nectar). The study’s findings will also help identify the prime plant species that provide high-quality nutrition for bumblebees to aid in their conservation.

4. They Beat Their Wings 200 Times per Second

Bumblebee wings move faster than the human eye can detect, so scientists use high-speed cameras and computer vision techniques to analyze their wingbeats. Using a combination of virtual stereo systems and intersecting laser beams, researchers in Querétaro, Mexico, found that a bumblebee’s wings beat an impressive 200 times each second.

5. They Create a Vibrating Pulse for Pollination

The wingbeat helps create the vibrating buzz that makes bumblebees such great pollinators. Studies on pollination strategies of a critically endangered lily species found that bumblebees made up over 81% of flower visits, but they spent significantly less time on each flower than other bee species, suggesting a faster efficiency as well.

6. Bumblebees Have Five Eyes

Close up of bumblebee eyes
Yevhen Borysov / Getty Images

Bees need their complex eye system to navigate and pick up colors, shapes, and UV markings on flowers. For that reason, bumblebees have five eyes, including two main ones with about 6,000 facets and three smaller ones on the top of their heads. The small eyes sit close to each other but give the bee different perspectives.

Bumblebee eyes are larger than honeybee eyes and lack the interfacetal hairs on the eye surface—scientists aren’t sure why.

7. They Have Impostors

Just like a cuckoo bird leaves its eggs in a foreign nest for another bird to raise, species of cuckoo bumblebees sneak into other colonies to lay their eggs. In many cases, cuckoo bumblebees lose their social ability to rear and produce workers over time, so they must rely on established hives to do the work for them. Unlike cuckoo birds that just have to trick one or two birds, a cuckoo bumblebee must fool an entire colony—just one of the reasons why they are so rare and, in some cases, critically endangered.

8. They Shiver to Keep Warm

Even though bumblebee species are designed to handle a wide range of climates, they still need to raise their internal temperature in order to take flight (this is why you may notice queens or workers on the ground in the colder months in early spring).

The Arctic bumblebee is found in northern regions of Alaska, Canada, Northern Scandinavia, and Russia. Because of the cold, these bees have to work a lot harder to raise their temperatures, sometimes even basking inside conical flowers to concentrate the sun’s rays. To warm themselves faster, the bees shiver their large flight muscles, getting their temperatures up to the minimum for flight, 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

9. The Biggest Bumblebees Live in South America

large red bumblebee on purple flower

Pato Novoa / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Bombus dahlbomii, more commonly known as the Patagonian bumblebee or the South American bumblebee, can grow as large as 1.18 inches long. These giants are found in the southern tip of South America, throughout Argentina and Chile. According to IUCN estimates, its population experienced a 54% decline over 10 years, earning the Bombus dahlbomii a spot on the Endangered Species List.

One of the species' greatest threats comes from pathogens introduced by non-native bumblebee species.

10. Male Bumblebees Can’t Sting

Like other bee species, only female queen or worker bumblebees can sting. However, since they are typically less aggressive than honeybees (who have valuable honey to protect), bumblebees will generally only sting if they feel threatened or if something disturbs their hive.

Also unlike honeybees, a bumblebee sting isn’t a death sentence for the insect. Bumblebee species have smooth stingers without barbs, so they won’t automatically die after using their stinger. If it needs to, a bumblebee can sting the same victim repeatedly. 

11. Bumblebees Build Their Nests Close to the Ground

Bumblebee nest with bees in it on the ground
witoldkr1 / Getty Images

Nest sites change depending on the specific type of bumblebee, but most of the common species prefer to build nests in dry, dark cavities underground. The responsibility of finding a suitable nesting site falls upon the queen, who spends early spring investigating her environment in search of undisturbed areas and holes without much sun exposure. For this reason, bumblebee nests can turn up in a wide range of unique places, such as under sheds or abandoned rodent holes.

12. They Have Fast Metabolisms

Bees are a perfect example of the “rate of living theory,” which states that an animal’s metabolic rate directly determines its lifespan. Bumblebee drones and worker bees are active for their entire lives, collecting pollen and nectar to support the hive and continue the species' natural progression.

Expending all that energy comes at a cost, as evidenced in a 2019 study on common eastern bumblebees. The study followed three colonies and found that workers with a higher resting metabolic rate had reduced lifespans, even when excluding external causes of mortality.

13. They Live in Colonies With 70 to 1,800 Individuals

When it comes to bumblebee colonies, a larger size makes for greater pollination efficiency. Size varies between different species but on average range from 70 to 1,800 individuals. Colony size is also related to queen reproduction and food access, since a large food supply can produce a larger workforce, and in turn provide higher quality brood care or help defend the colony from predators. Other factors, such as temperature and rainfall, can affect a bumblebee colony size as well.

14. They Are Essential to Flowers

Much of the world’s pollinating praise goes to honeybees, which are more abundant than bumblebees in terms of both colony size and number of colonies. One Canadian study found that 70% of pollinator visits to crops were made by managed honeybees, while 28.2% were made by wild bumblebees. However, pollination deficits declined sharply with more bumblebee visits rather than more honeybee visits; this supports the theory that managed honeybees alone aren’t enough to maximize yields in the agricultural system—wild pollinators, like bumblebees, are just as necessary.

15. Some Bumblebee Species Are in Trouble

Bumblebees face many threats, from habitat loss and disease to climate change and pesticide use. The IUCN Red List currently lists five bumblebee species as critically endangered, including Suckley's cuckoo bumblebee, Franklin’s bumblebee, and the rusty patched bumblebee. In North America, four different bumblebee species have declined by up to 96%, some within the last few decades.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the rusty patched bumblebee on the Endangered Species List in 2017, after the once-common species plummeted by 87% within its historic range. In early 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity helped petition the U.S. government to grant Endangered Species Act protection to the American bumblebee after it saw a population decline of 89% in just 20 years.

Save The Bumblebees

View Article Sources
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