You all know this insect. He is a pretty stocky fellow—black and yellow. And he tends to fly in a sort of unprogrammed way.
Most insects fly as though they know where they want to go, but the bumblebee seems to fly in a sort of clumsy way. He even will fly right into things, and if he lands on something, he seems to move around as though he was lost.
I suppose this is sort of, well, bumbling.
There is not just one species of bumblebee, but many. A lot of them are quite big, and look as if they were fat. Most of these bees are black and yellow, but there are some which have a lot of orange on them.
On average, they are about 20 mm (half-an-inch) in length.
Bees are in an order of insects called Hymenoptera. This includes not only bees and wasps of all kinds, but some other insects called sawflies and horntails. And, of course, the common honey bee.
Bumblebees do not make nests like wasps do, nor do they gather in hollow trees like other bees do. They make their nests in the ground (quite often they make use of old mouse or bird nests).
The “big shot” bee is, of course, the queen. She lays all the eggs and generally is in charge of the whole thing.
Males, the drones, have only one purpose in life—to fertilize the queen. When that job is done, they die off sooner or later.
A colony of bumblebees last for only one year. Only the queen remains over the winter.
In the spring, the queen selects a nest and lays some eggs. She raises the first brood all by herself (the only bees which do this).
The new ones are all workers—and they take over right away. They fix up the nest, feed the larvae, keep the place clean, and generally do all of the chores except laying eggs.
Honey is stored in little “honeypots.”
In the late fall, drones and queens are produced, the queens are fertilized, and then all but the queens die off.
An egg hatches into a little white maggot, which is blind (it has no eyes). The maggots are fed honey and pollen. The food they are given determines what kind of adults they will be (i.e., queens, drones, or workers).
This maggot stage only lasts for a week or two.
All bees can sting, which means they all have stingers. Most bees have stingers with a little extra backward hook—like a fishhook. So when that stinger goes into you, you can’t pull it out.
So that type of bee can sting only once.
But the bumblebee has a different stinger—it is smooth. So this bee can sting you many times.
Actually, bumblebees are quite mild-mannered. They won’t sting you at all unless you do something to really make them mad.
I recall one time years ago in Nova Scotia, my wife and I went out to have a picnic in a great big field of daisies. All was fine until I sat down—right on top of a bumblebee nest.
That bothered them no end (I’m sure I beat the world record for running that day!)
Bumblebees are one of the world’s great pollinators. They have long tongues, which is especially helpful when they are going about their business in a field of clover.
A colony of honey bees may run up to several thousand, but a bumblebee colony is usually only about 500 or so.
Incidentally, some years ago, a bunch of engineering students got quite interested in the flight of this bee. After examining the wing surface, load, and all the rest of the details, they came to the conclusion that bumblebees couldn’t fly.
A long time later, another group found that air currents under the bees’ wings made flight possible.
And so the common bumblebee, which isn’t supposed to fly at all, keeps clumsily proving all those scientists wrong.
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