Bumble bees are easily distinguished from other bees. Their large and attractive appearance piques the interest of everyone from children and naturalists, to scientists and beekeepers. The various species of bumble bees come in a variety of colors and sizes. But do bumble bees make honey? This question is more common than people might think.
Bumble bees are social, and they do not have perennial colonies, as do their honey bee counterparts. They do not need to store large quantities of honey. The colony is replenished with new bees yearly, and the previous members all die before the colder months start.
Wild bumble bee populations fluctuate in size year to year. Parasites, predators, and other factors can affect the hives yield. That said, they are amazing pollinators so, breeding them and using them for commercial purposes has become increasingly popular.
In this article, we will discuss what bumble bees are, the facts of their species, and key points such as:
- Do bumble bees make honey and if so, can it be harvested?
- If there are measurable commercial benefits to keeping bumble bees
- How to properly maintain and utilize bumble bee hives
What Are Bumble Bees?
Bumble bees are identified by their recognizable black and yellow coloration. They will typically have hairy black or yellow abdomens, instead of smooth, shiny abdomens, as on various other bee types. A foraging bumble bee will also have large pollen baskets on both rear legs.
Queens are significantly bigger than the workers. They can be up to twice their size. The queens' abdomens are more pointed than their daughters', and they have a stinger. Male bumble bees lack a stinger altogether, and the tips of their abdomens are rounded.
Bumble Bee Nesting Habits And Life Cycle
In the wild, bumble bees nest inside of the ground. Deserted mouse nests or bird nests are typical locations they like to choose. They are known to take up residence in the walls of buildings, or in tight spaces, like the vents of clothes dryers. Commercially they are kept in man-made nests designed to duplicate their preferred environment.
When spring arrives, the queen finds a suitable cavity for her hive and lines the area with dry moss or grass. She also collects pollen, moistens it with nectar, and fashions a food called "bee bread," which will then get stored.
It takes about 21 days for her offspring to grow from eggs to adults. The queen's first brood will yield just five to twenty offspring; all will be female. The daughters will take over the colony responsibilities required to enlarge the nest such as:
- Food gathering
- Feeding and caring for the larvae
- Tending the queen
The queen will continue to lay eggs for the duration of the summer. Late into the summer, she will produce males and other females capable of reproduction. The bees capable of reproducing will mate on the wing.
Once fertilized, the females will go into hibernation. The future queens choose shelters of loose bark, hollow trees or other places that are dry and protected. Queens will lie dormant throughout the winter. The males continue to work for the colony until the cold of the winter causes them to die. In the spring, the cycle continues.
Do Bumble Bees Make Honey?
"Do bumble bees make honey," is not an uncommon question. Many people assume that all bees make honey, but this is not the case. It is arguable that bumble bees produce something similar, in use, to honey. However, technically it is not honey. Instead, it is a nectar they store for food. The storage designed to support short-term and immediate use, unlike honeybees, which store at a surplus for the winter. Animals and other bees will happily raid bumblebee nests for nectar stores and larvae.
In the West, we typically do not harvest bumble bee nectar for human consumption. There are many practical reasons why it's not done. First, depending on the size of the nest, honey bee colonies can house around 60,000 bees before they swarm. In contrast, bumble bee colonies are tiny. There may be only 150 to 300 bees per nest.
When comparing those numbers, consider the average honeybee only makes about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey throughout her lifetime. Keepers can harvest their honey because there are so many bees making it. In contrast, if every bumble bee worker made roughly the same amount of honey, the yield would be insignificant considering the modest size of their colonies.
Are Bumble Bees Useful To Beekeepers?
If bumble bees are not useful for honey production and harvesting, do they have a usefulness to commercial or individual beekeepers? The answer is a definitive, yes! The mite infestations ravaging many wild beehives throughout the United States do not seem to have the same effect as bumblebee hives.
Their resistance is fortunate because they are excellent pollinators. Their behavior, physiology, and morphology make them suited to transfer pollen with speed and efficiency. There is an increased benefit because they have the endurance to fly for longer periods of time and can do so in more adverse weather than honey bees.
Bumble bees are able to buzz pollinate flowers for pollen. The technique is not one we observe in honey bees. Buzz pollination is when bumble bees pump their wings at a specific frequency to vibrate a flower. The vibrations are strong enough to dislodge pollen.
Another point to consider is that certain plants are better pollinated by bumble bees. Plants such as strawberry and watermelon can benefit from bumblebee pollinating. Last, bumble bees forage earlier in the day and end later in the evening than honey bees.
How To Care For And Use Bumble Bees As Pollinators
In order to use bumble bees as pollinators, you have to understand the strategy behind their foraging. Place the bees in your fields after your crops have bloomed. There must be enough forage for them to survive. If there is not sufficient forage and the bees find forage other than where your crops are, they will continue to forage in those sites. This is especially true if they like the other site's crop better.
Encouraging In-Field Foraging
By placing the bees in the middle of your field, you can encourage in-field foraging. Once you have placed the units, allow the bees to settle down. Follow the instructions from your supplier when placing your colony. Do not open the container before the allotted time. Despite the time needed to chew their way out of the hole to exit, they still need no less than 30 minutes to settle after transport.
If your bumble bees fail to chew out of their nest, you can cut the hole for them. Most colonies have no trouble finding their way out and should be given the chance to do so.
Bumble bees can be used to pollinate more than one field. Simply close the second entrance, leaving only one opening, wait at least two hours for foragers to return, and relocate. Following transfer, the same setup precautions apply.
Bumble Bee Nest Management
Bumble bees are active and struggle to keep their body temperature at around 86?F. Because of that, their nest should be kept in the shade. Doing so will increase their productivity and longevity. Nests kept in natural shade or a shade structure, significantly outperform those in direct sunlight as the workers can work longer and more vigorously.
Bumble bee nests can be overturned or moved by strong winds so, it is important to weigh them down. If a nest is flipped, it will interfere with the normal orientation of the colony. The entrances to the colony may be obstructed, trapping the colony inside. Also, larvae and food stores may fall out of their wax shells.
The nests need to be separated from honey bee hives. A distance of no less than one mile should be kept between the two habitats as honey bees will be attracted to the nectar supplies and pollen in bumble bee nests. The robbery of the bumble bees' stores can lead to a weekend colony and loss of pollination productivity of both colonies.
If you plan to use pesticides, you must close your bees units before each application. No less than two hours before any pesticide application you should ensure there is only one point of entry. Time will allow the colonies foragers to return, limiting the pesticide exposure.
Although the answer to the question "do bumble bees make honey" is no, bumble bees make excellent pollinator alternatives to honeybees. They are useful in the arsenal of professional farmers, small home plots, and bee enthusiasts who want to ensure the propagation of crops and local plant foliage. If you choose to keep them, be sure to dispose of the colonies in a timely and humane fashion following the pollination season. Commercial bees pose a risk to the wild populations as their genetic diversity is unlike that occurring in nature.