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Bee Basics - Bumblebees & Honeybees

Readers will be aware that my posts are entry-level and as such are aimed at people who perhaps have heard that bees need our help, but don't know that much about them. There's a really obvious topic that I can't bee-lieve I haven't written about sooner to help people on their bee journey - the differences between bumblebees and honeybees. (There's another type of bee that is just as in need of attention - solitary bees, but I'd like to write about those separately.)

There's little point in re-inventing the wheel, so I have pulled from information provided by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to present these comparisons. What I'd like to do is then talk about some of them, and try to build up deeper understanding of what they mean, and how they might shape some of the choices we make.

Let's start with the really simple stuff - how they look. Bumblebees are fluffy chunky creatures, and honeybees appear more sleek and almost cylindrical in shape. Because there are so many different types of bumblebee, I can only give you a rough idea - colours and sizing will vary, but in general they are fluffy things with stripes of black and perhaps white, ginger, yellow, brown or orange. I think you'll be able to identify which is which:

You may have heard me have a bit of a rant about different bee imagery getting mixed in with the 'wrong' bee type. It's only because there's a lot of confusion and such mixing perpetuates some of the common misconceptions. This naturally leads on to the next differences - honeybees live in hives, but bumblebees live in nests. And honeybees make harvestable honey; bumblebees do not.

Putting aside my inept and rather crude depictions, I'm sure you can now see that some elements do not apply to both bumblebees and honeybees.

I've also included one of my pet 'peeves' in this childish scribbling - pointy, sting-y bottoms on bumblebees. I've never seen a bumblebee with a point like that. The stinger is what bees use to deposit their eggs, and as such, only females have them. Bumblebees are very unlikely to sting. The difference between them and honeybees, is that honeybees have barbed 'stingers' so unless given the time to properly work themselves free, the sting will break off, meaning the bee will die. As bumblebees have smooth 'stingers', they can remove them. So the next time you are in quiz that asks 'Bees die when they sting - true or false?' you know that the question is not specific enough.

So we know they look different, and one produces harvestable honey. Following on from the point about hives, we reach the difference that honeybees are, more often than not, introduced and managed by human beings, and bumblebees are wild. (There's a rather sad caveat around that, because some tomato farms buy in bumblebee colonies to pollinate their tomatoes (they are great at doing so) and once their work is done, the bees are chilled down and killed off, as they don't want to affect the ecosystem by introducing them into the wild.) But on the whole, bumblebee colonies do their own thing and humans do not introduce or manage them.

A note on bumblebee colonies that you can buy online - my personal opinion is that if you have the right sort of provision for bees, they will come in time. I am baffled as to why anyone would want to try to force a colony of bumblebees into a place that other bumblebees have not yet developed in. There could be many reasons why it hasn't happened naturally - being near fields sprayed with pesticides, or having honeybee colonies nearby which limit access to forage, or simply not having appropriate flowers that are in bloom throughout the year. I'm happy enough planting for bees and watching them visit me. I don't feel like a failure because they haven't nested here. Buying a bumblebee colony isn't 'helping' bees; it only helps the company you are buying from. You may even be forcing them into a location where they will struggle and suffer. Bumblebee colonies are only around for a year (not even that long really), so if you want to help, then plant accordingly and tempt them in naturally with a smorgasbord of pollen and nectar.

I have to admit that when I started my bee journey just a few years ago, I was guilty of having a muddled view and had mentally lumped 'bees' together. One of the things I was most surprised to learn, was the difference in colony size. Bumblebee colonies are pretty small, with their nests homing from 50 to 400 bees. 400 bees. That sounds like a lot, right? Honeybee hives can have tens of thousands of inha-bee-tants. When researching this, I encountered different figures, up to 100,000 - with 60,000 to 80,000 being more common. Beehives simmer down over the winter months so the numbers will vary at different points throughout the year. What was interesting to learn, was that each hive requires about an international rugby pitch worth of forage to sustain it. That's a lot of flowers, and as mentioned previously, planting needs to ensure that there are flowers available across different seasons.

A honeybee hive needs around an international rugby pitch worth of forage

Talking about 'forage' (the flowers that bees will obtain pollen and nectar from) takes us nicely on to the differences in tongue length. It's really interesting stuff. Well, I think so. Honeybees tongues are shorter than those of bumblebees. Bumblebee tongues can range from the buff tailed bombus terrestris, up to the garden bombus hortorum's super long tongue which is roughly double that of the buff tailed. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, it means that some bee and flower combinations are better than others. If you revisit the earlier image of the honeybee on the yellow flower, you'll note that the flower is open - the key bits of the flower (as far as a bee is concerned) are easily accessible. If you look closely at the chive plant on which the bumblebee is on, you'll notice that it is formed of lots of small trumpet shaped flowers. The verbena (the purple flower in the above picture, which the butterfly is visiting) is similar. It's a bit of an effort for a bee to get stuck in, so the bees and other long-tongued pollinators are rewarded with nectar.

Taking this forward organically, I'd like to address 'Well if honeybees pollinate AND make honey, we should just focus on increasing their numbers, right?' Of course I'm going to say 'wrong'. Because different bees are more suited to different flowers, it is really important for us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We cannot solve our pollinator problems simply by adding in more honeybee colonies. They have a part to play, but if you introduce tens of thousands of extra foragers in a location, it is going to have a negative effect on the wild bees that may have already been there. Hopefully by now you will appreciate that as different crops have different shaped flowers, which flower at different times (when different bees are active) we need a range of bees and other pollinators.

Bombus pascuorum on a tomato plant

What may come as a surprise to some, is that bumblebees and honeybees face slightly different challenges, although there seems to be increasing overlap. Bumblebee populations are declining mainly due to a shortage of flowers and nesting habitat. Honeybees' main issues are diseases and mites such as the Varroa mite. Some studies have shown that diseases are being passed from honeybees on to bumblebees (when they land on a flower, the next visitor may well pick something up from them). Therefore healthy and well managed honeybee colonies with responsible owners are in everyone's interests. We also need to ensure we do not over saturate with honeybees, as bumblebees and solitary bees have their own important roles to play.

I must say, I have enjoyed writing this piece and revisiting the differences between honeybees and bumblebees. Perhaps this has helped some firm up the differences in their own minds. For me, it has also reaffirmed how important it is to ensure we are planting pesticide-free, and a range of differently shaped flowers which will provide forage throughout the year - this will support all of our precious pollinators.

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