Bumblebees vs. Honeybees: What’s the Difference, and Why Does it Matter?

Bumblebees vs. Honeybees:  What’s the Difference, and Why Does it Matter?

Bees have been much in the news of late, and for the saddest of reasons: due to habitat loss, global warming, pesticides, and monocrop agriculture, their numbers are in sharp decline across the United States. The loss of bees and other threatened pollinators could damage not only the world’s economy, but also endanger its very ecosystem.

But not all bees are created equal: there are nearly 20,000 known species, differing widely in physical characteristics, pollination habits, behaviors, and habitat. And although we can’t be familiar with all of them, we can take a first step by considering two of the most common varieties: the bumblebee and the honeybee.

Bumblebees vs. Honeybees: Appearance and Habitat

Let’s get the taxonomy out of the way first. Although the various bumblebee and honeybee species both belong to the Apidae family, bumblebees belong to the Bombus genus and honeybees to Apis. Their appearance is different, as well.

Bumblebees are round and fuzzy; honeybees are smaller and thinner – it would be easy, in fact, to mistake them for wasps. And while honeybees have a clear distinction between head and abdomen, bumblebees are “all of one piece.” Honeybees also have two clear sets of wings: a larger set in front and a smaller set in back.

Close up of a honeybee

But it is in habitat where their dissimilarities are most clearly marked. Hyper-social honeybees live in hives with tens of thousands of their brethren: those hives can either be domesticated colonies kept by beekeepers or wild ones found in hollow trees. As their name suggests, they are honey producers, and their long-lived colonies survive the winter intact – the queen, in fact, can live for some three to four years.

Close up of a bumblebee

Bumblebees are social, too, but not to the same extent. Where honeybees build hives, bumblebees live in nests with up to a few hundred fellow bees. These nests are found exclusively in the wild (bumblebees are not domesticated), and can often be found in burrows or holes in the ground. In fact, the queen, which is the only member of a bumblebee colony to survive the winter, hibernates in the ground. Bumblebees are not honey producers – or rather, what they produce is for self-consumption in the nest.

Bumblebees vs. Honeybees: Pollination and Feeding

Of the two groups, bumblebees are the better pollinators. The reason for this is eminently practical: as there are more species of bumblebees, there is a wider variety in lengths of tongue and, thus, the kinds of flowers they feed from. They are fast workers and, because of their larger bodies, can carry larger loads.

Bumblebee

Bumblebees are good at learning how to extract pollen from different flowers and can even specialize in certain species. And this greater flexibility makes them adept at cross-pollination, which is particularly important for fruit trees. Moreover, bumblebees are more resistant to weather conditions such as cold, rain, and limited light.

The one advantage honeybees have is communication: they actually perform a dance to let their fellow workers know where good supplies of pollen can be found! Although this is good for their colony and honey production, it can actually be a disadvantage in terms of pollination. Whereas honeybees will rush off to mine a certain pollen source, bumblebees will stay around, patiently working an extended area until it is fully pollinated.

Honeybees

Don’t Fear the Sting

One final difference: honeybees can only sting once before dying. Bumblebees can sting multiple times, but they do not form swarms like honeybees and they only sting when truly provoked.

Both bee types are safe enough to host in your backyard, so take sensible precautions and don’t let fear of stings prevent you from planting wildflowers to attract bees and reverse decades of habitat loss. You can either do this in your own yard or in unattended areas through the use of seed bombs. You’ll not only be helping to save our endangered bees, but you’ll able to appreciate their differences for yourself!

Honeybee

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