Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know about Bumble Bees

Mmmm….wild blueberries and cranberries are delicious! In Northern Canada, wild berries are an important part of the traditional diet. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy these delicious treats without the help of pollinators, like the bumble bee. The flowers on these berries are enclosed so it takes a bumble bee’s long “tongue” to get to the plant’s nectar. Bumble bees release the pollen on these flowers by “buzzing” the muscles they use for flying. Some of this released pollen sticks to them and is transferred to other flowers, which pollinates the plants. Bumble bees are pretty amazing, and not just for their pollinating abilities. Check out this list of ten things you probably didn’t know about bumble bees.

1)  There are 46 species of bumble bees in North America

Common Eastern Bumblebee
Common Eastern Bumblebee

Bumble bees are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic tundra to deserts and forests. They are important pollinators of many plant species within the diverse ecosystems of North America, including many of those found in Canada’s national parks!

2)  Only female bumble bees have stingers

bumble bee feeding

If you’ve ever been stung by a bumble bee it would have been a female since the males don’t have stingers.

3)  Bumble bees eat pollen, nectar and bee poop, yuck!

bumble bee feeding pink flowerr

Bumble bees have a protein rich diet of pollen and nectar, which sounds delicious, but their first meal isn’t so appetising. At the start of a bumble bee’s adult life they eat the feces of other bumble bees. This fecal matter has bacteria in it that helps the bumble bee’s immune system, protecting them from parasites.

4)  Only the queen survives the winter

Early Bumble Bee (Bombus pratorum)
Bombus pratorum queen. Photo Credit: Flickr user, Martin Cooper

Bumble bee colonies die at the end of each growing season, only the queen survives to start a new colony in the spring. This is unlike honey bee colonies, where the queen and some members of the colony survive throughout the winter.

5) Bumble bees don’t mind the cold and they like the mountains

B occidentalis queen

Bumble bees go in search of food in temperatures as low as 0 C. They stay warm by vibrating their flight muscles to generate heat. Bumble bee diversity tends to be the highest around mountain ranges. Nahanni National Park Reserve, which is located in the Northwest Territories’ Mackenzie Mountains, has at least 13 documented species of bumble bees! One of those species, the Western Bumble Bee, has been listed as a Special Concern by COSEWIC, which is why Earth Rangers took action to help protect them.

6) Bumble bee tongues come in different sizes

bumble bee tongue

Bumble bee species have different lengths of tongues that match the flowers they feed on. This helps to reduce the competition for food between species because they aren’t all feeding off of the same flowers. Bumble bees with long tongues can reach the nectar in long tubular flowers, while medium and shorter-tongued species collect nectar from smaller flowers.

7) The cuckoo bumble bees are nest robbers

Cuckoo Bumble Bee
Cuckoo Bumble Bee. Photo Credit: Christopher Cooper

Instead of foraging for pollen or starting their own colonies, cuckoo bumble bees will take over the nests of other bee species. Even though they are thieves, cuckoo bumble bee species are still important for biodiversity and declines in their numbers can be a warning sign of change within the ecosystem. One rare cuckoo species, the Gypsy Cuckoo Bumble Bee has been found as far north as Ivvavik National Park!

8) Some plants trick bees into pollinating them

Venus slipper (calypso bulbosa)
There are plant species that rely on bees for pollination even though they contain no nectar and the bees can’t get to their pollen. These plants have to “fool” the bees, getting them to come to them by using attractive scents, colors, and “guidance” markings that help lure the bees in. One flower that “fools” bees is the Venus’ Slipper (Calypso bulbosa). The Venus’ Slipper is a delicate wild orchid that lives in the boreal forest and it is one of the first plants to flower in the spring, it can be found in Canada’s national parks such as Wood Buffalo and Nahanni.

9) Bumble bees stay close to home

bumble bees flying
After foraging at various flowers, bumble bees will carry their collected pollen and nectar back to the nest to feed. The farthest they have been known to fly from the nest for foraging is 10 km.

10) Bumble bees don’t share their honey

bumble bee hive
bumble bee hive. Photo credit, FLickr User Jem

Bumble bees only make a small amount of honey, which they eat themselves. It is honey bees that make lots of honey, enough for bee keepers to collect for us to eat.

Bees are threatened by habitat loss, but you can help! Take action to protect bees by planting a pollinator garden.

National Conservation Plan