Bumble Bees vs. Honey Bees

Some people might use the names “bumble bee” and “honey bee” interchangeably, especially since both are flower-visiting insects, important for flower and crop pollination. But in fact, the two groups of bees are very different. At the species level, there are over 250 species of bumble bees while there are only a few different species of honey bees. Keep reading for an overview of bumble bees vs. honey bees to learn more about the differences and similarities between the two informal groups.

bumble bee vs. honey bee

Physical appearance

Bumble bees are well-known for their large size and fuzzy appearance. In fact, the bumble bee’s appearance is a way to tell if the bee buzzing around you is a bumble bee or a honey bee. While honey bees also have short hairs covering their bodies, there is a noticeably smaller amount. They don’t have nearly the same fuzzy appearance that their close relation the bumble bees do. And, honey bees are often smaller with thinner bodies than bumble bees. In fact, sometimes honey bees are mistaken for wasps (though unlike wasps, honey bees do not attack unprovoked). Finally, in most bumble bee species they have darker wings than honey bees. If you’re able to see a bee at a close—but safe—distance, all of these physical differences should make it easier to tell them apart.

Bumble bee nests vs. Honey bee hives

Honey bees are known for their infamous hives, where they produce honey and wax, and operate within well-organized castes. In a honey bee hive, there are three castes: drones, workers, and the queen bee. One queen honey bee can live for several years within its hive. Honey bees almost always build their hives in structures above ground or in trees , although it is common now to run into hives of beekeepers as opposed to honey bee hives in the wild. Skip down to the honey production section if you want to learn more about why honey bees rather than bumble bees are the choice among beekeepers for honey harvesting.

Bumble bees, on the other hand, build their nests underground . Sometimes they will build nests aboveground but it is much less common. While bumble bee nests also operate in a three-caste system with a queen bee in charge of reproduction, the colony size is much smaller than honey bee hives. The queen only lives for about a year and will hibernate during the winter; worker and drone bumble bees only live for a few months.

Bee behavior

One notable difference between honey bees and bumble bees is that honey bees can usually only sting once before they die. This is because when a honey bee stings you and leaves its barb behind, it also leaves behind the venom sack and sometimes part of their intestines. Without these, the honey bee will die within minutes. On the other hand, bumble bees can sting multiple times. But they don’t swarm in the same way that honey bees do. When one honey bee stings, others will swarm in its defense.

Honey production and pollination

While you probably know that honey bees produce honey by virtue of their name, you might not know that bumble bees also produce honey. However, bumble bees produce significantly less honey than honey bees and so aren’t kept by beekeepers in the same way that honey bees are. The reason that bumble bees produce less honey is because they have fewer members of their colony—besides the over-wintering queen—and do not need the honey to survive the winter. As a previous section explains, bumble bees are much shorter-lived than honey bees.

As mentioned earlier, both honey bees and bumble bees are instrumental for pollination across many different ecosystems. In fact, the USDA estimates that one-third of crop pollination relies on insects—with bees making up a large majority of this work. Of this one-third, the majority of crop pollination is completed by managed honey bee colonies. Honey bees have a distinct advantage when it comes to pollination: Their communication. Honey bees are able to communicate with each other on where to go for pollen through a distinctive waggle dance. Bumble bees also have certain advantages for pollination, mostly because of their physical attributes: The long, fuzzy hair covering their abdomens makes it easy for pollen to effectively stick to their bodies and legs, and their long tongue and wing vibrating technique is particularly effective for pollinating certain types of plans. So, both honey bees and bumble bees are effective pollinators in their own ways. .

Now you know some of the main differences and similarities between honey bees and bumble bees. And as you can see, there’s more to it than just one bee being fuzzier than the other.


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