All About Bumblebees and Bees

Bumblebees are distinctly large, hairy and relatively slow flying social insects that belong to an order of invertebrates called Hymenoptera. This order includes all true bees and wasps, but not the hoverfly species that often look like or mimic bees and wasps. Many bumblebee species are yellow and black with others exhibiting white or brown bands as well.

Around 240 species of bumblebee have been identified worldwide with 25 species recorded in Britain. However, British bumblebees are in decline and at least two of these species are now thought to be extinct.


Bees are one of our most important insects and are responsible for pollinating around 75% of our crops worldwide. Globally, pollination is estimated to be worth £141 billion each year, so without bees mankind would have serious food production problems.

Important UK crops that rely on Bumblebee pollination include:

  • Oil Seed Rape
  • Runner Beans, Broad Beans
  • Raspberries, Blackberries, Blueberries, Gooseberry Currents
  • Sunflowers
  • Cherries, Pears, Plums, Apples, Peaches
  • Courgettes, Marrows, Pumpkins, Gourds
  • Aubergines, Tomatoes, Peppers, Cucumbers
  • Strawberries

Bumblebees are probably one of the most easily recognised groups of pollinators and their lifecycle is quite fascinating.

Bumblebees are on the wing throughout the summer months, but each year, as autumn approaches, it is only newly produced queen bumblebees that leave the nest to mate with the males (drones) and over winter whilst the old queen, drones and workers die. These queens then emerge the following spring although they’re sometimes seen flying on warm winter days.

As soon as the spring flowers start to bloom, the queen bumblebees find a secluded cavity to begin building their nests. This can, for example, be in an old log, a compost heap or even a deserted mouse hole. The queen bee starts by building a pot out of wax and filling it with honey she makes from the nectar of spring flowers. She also collects pollen and forms it into a ball that she impregnates with eggs then covers with wax. She then incubates the egg-laden pollen ball by sitting on top of it and generating heat to a temperature of 30°C! The heat is generated from the queen’s body after eating nectar collected from an estimated 6000 flowers each day! On days when she is unable to collect nectar, she stays in the hive and feeds on honey within the wax pot that she made earlier. Eggs hatch in about 4 to 5 days into larvae that feed on the pollen collected by the queen. After 3 weeks, the larvae pupate and then emerge as worker bees two weeks later. Their initial job is to produce wax that is used to build new egg cells, but after a few days the workers take on the job of foraging for pollen. This enables the queen bumblebee to spend more time in the hive laying eggs to produce more workers and increasing the colony size up to 400 individuals. Although workers can live for about 4 weeks many are killed earlier by predators and cars.

Bumblebee brood
Inside the nest of a Bombus terrestris colony

When the life of the colony is almost over and the queen begins to lay unfertilised eggs that will develop into male bumblebees. She also stops producing a chemical pheromone which allows the remaining fertilised eggs to develop into new queens rather than workers. These hatch and the process is ready for the next generation to begin. Bumblebees are widely used in commercial horticulture for pollination of crops. They have some unique qualities that make them a better a choice of pollinating insect than honeybees in many situations.

  • Bumblebees visit more flowers and carry heavier loads
  • Bumblebees are active lower temperatures than honeybees
  • Bumblebees use “buzz pollination”, which helps pollinate a wider variety of plants.
  • Their size also often gives them better contact with plant stamens and pistils than smaller insects
  • Bumblebees do not have a communication system, unlike honeybees, so cannot communicate to other bees where pollen sources are. This prevents them leaving an area collectively
  • Bumblebees move from tree to tree more frequently in fruit crops than honeybees. This results in better cross pollination
  • Bumblebee colonies are smaller are therefore easier to maintain
  • Bumblebees rarely become aggressive


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