I have a huge love of the humble bumblebee, so I thought that Iwould make this fat, furry insect the topic of a post.
1. Bumblebees are part of the suitably named genus of Bombus (the name just suits them , don’t you think?). Their bodies are fatter than that of the honey bee and are covered in soft hair. They have less bands of colour than honeybees or wasps, the black contrasting with yellow, orange or white (or variants thereof).
2. Bumblebees like to create their nests either in old burrows underground or else in holes or hollows in a tree. This is to regulate the temperature of the nest in summer. Their colonies are much smaller than that of honey bees, consisting of between 50-400 individuals, all ruled by a queen.
3. Their main food is nectar. They have a long hairy tongue (much longer than the honeybee) which enables them to reach the nectar in long tubular flowers. However sometimes even this is too much hard work and instead they make a hole near the base of the flower and ‘rob’ the nectar without having to deal with the messy pollen further up. This, of course, really does not help the flower as the bee will then not carry pollen to another flower to pollinate it.
4. There is an oft-repeated story that bumblebees can’t sting. Sadly this is a myth, as they can sting just as well as any other bee – well, the females do. In fact, they can sting better as their stings do not have any barbs (unlike the honey bee) so they are able to pull it out again without any damage to themselves. Luckily, the bumblebee is not aggressive and rarely stings unless provoked.
5. There are about 250 species of bumblebee in the world, most of them living in the Northern Hemisphere and at higher altitudes. Here, in the UK, we have 24 different species, including the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), the White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), the Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and the Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarus).
6. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term Bumblebee was first recorded by John Palsgrave in 1530 in a work called Lesclarcissment. He wrote: ‘I bomme, as a bombyll bee dothe.’ However, before then, in 1450, it seems to have been known as a ‘humblebee’: ‘In Juyll the greshop and the humbylbee in the medow’ (from Fysshynge wyth Angle). Later on in 1600, Shakespeare also called it by the name ‘humblebee’ in his Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘The honie-bags steale from the humble Bees.’ Even in the Origin of the Species (1859), Darwin was still referring to them as humblebees. Oh, and for all you Harry Potter fans, Dumbledore is another Old English name for this bee – as well as any loud buzzing insect.
7. Bumblebee colonies and their queens only last for a year. The life-cycle beings in spring when queens from last year’s brood emerge from the soil, where they have been hibernating alone. The young queen then finds a suitable place for a nest and starts to bring pollen and nectar back to it which she stores in waxy structures. She lays her first brood of eggs on her wax and nectar mound in the nest and keeps them warm by sitting on them and shivering her muscles to generate heat. When the larvae emerge, they are fed on the nectar and pollen until after two weeks they spin a cocoon around themselves. Here they develop into the adult bee. This first brood are all females and workers. They all have jobs such as fetching pollen and nectar, guarding the nest or keeping it clean. The queen is now constantly laying eggs and producing new broods. Towards the end of summer she starts producing new queens and male bees. The males leave the nest first and do not return. Then the maiden queens leave and mate with the males soon after. After this the newly mated queens feed up on as much nectar and pollen as they can to see them through the winter and find a place to hibernate. All of the other bees in the colony gradually die off. In the spring the new cycle starts again.
8. It was long-held that bumblebees were actually incapable of flight, according to the laws of aerodynamics. Obviously the bees themselves had no regards for such laws as they kept on flying anyway. Without going into very complicated physics, this has been decidedly disproved after detailed analysis of the bees’ flight dynamics. So, bumblebees do actually adhere to the laws of physics after all. And if you want to know how fast bees beat their wings – it’s about 200 times a second! Phew!
9. Cuckoo bumblebees belong (after a recent change) to the Bombus genus as well, and look just like bumblebees. But they are not the same species at all. As its name suggests, the cuckoo bumblebee actually invades the nest of whatever bumblebee species it is designed to mimic and kills the queen. It then adopts queenly status, using pheromones and physical attacks to force the workers into bring food to both herself and her own broods. A cuckoo bee can be distinguished from a bumblebee because it has no pollen baskets on its legs (which are hairy) and its wings appear darker.
10. Unlike honeybees bumblebees don’t do a waggledance to communicate to the rest of the colony the location of a good source of nectar. They do however run around the nest excitedly on their return from foraging and this may be a different form of communication as yet unidentified. To know which flowers to visit, they rely on learning the colour patterns of the flower. Many of these are invisible to the human eye as they exist in the ultraviolet spectrum. They are also capable of picking up electrical fields around plants which, among other things, tell the bee whether that flower has already been visited by another bee in the recent past thus avoiding an unnecessary trip to gather nectar which has already been taken.
11. Bumblebees have become an invaluable asset in agriculture. Being an important pollinator in the wild of wild flowers, fruit and vegetable crops, they have now been brought under glass. Now nests of bumblebees are reared and kept (or hired out) to commercial growers of tomatoes and fruit trees to increase pollination rates. When clover was first introduced to New Zealand, it was found that there were no local species that could pollinate it (hence no new seed). To solve this problem, bumblebee species were imported from Britain and in no time at all became naturalised.
12. Bumblebee species are now declining in numbers worldwide, which is worrying considering how necessary they are for our food production (and therefore survival). This is thought to be due to a number of factors such as habitat destruction, pathogens and exposure to pesticides (especially neonicotinoids). Steps are now being taken to address these problems by providing bee-kind environments and imposing a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids while more research is carried out. On a smaller scale, planting bee-friendly plants in the garden (without using pesticides of course) is something we can all do.
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (http://bumblebeeconservation.org/) has everything you’ve ever wanted to know, and didn’t even know you wanted to know – about bumblebees. There is an identification chart, lost of info about them and also how you can help save their numbers. Well worth a visit!