Bumble Bee FAQ

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Can bumble bees sting?

Yes, they can. Like all bees, bumble bees possess a modified egg-laying device called an ovipositor.  When threatened, bumble bees use this, along with venom, to sting whatever threatens them.  Much like the fact that only female mosquitoes bite you, only female bees are capable of stinging.  Males lack an ovipositor and are otherwise harmless.

Do bumble bees die after they sting you?

No.  This is a common myth that stems from honey bee biology.

Honey bee stingers are barbed at the end.  This means that, when honey bees sting, their stinger gets stuck and is pulled out out of their body when they fly away.  This ensures that the venom sack attached to the stinger remains attached continuing to dispense venom into the offending animal.  It also serves to “mark” the offending animal, providing other hive mates a scent mark to hone in on and continue to sting.

Bumble bee stingers, however, are smooth and un-barbed, allowing them to sting repeatedly.

Do bumble bees do the waggle dance?

No. The waggle dance refers to a system of communication that honey bees use to tell their nest mates the location of rewarding flower patches.  This allows honey bees to very efficiently gather pollen and nectar.

To our knowledge, bumble bees do not communicate the location of flower patches to one another in the nest.  Instead, they appear to work alone, each individually deciding where to gather food to bring back to the nest.  Whether bumble bees communicate, and how their social structures work within the colony is still an active area of research.

Does colony collapse disorder (CCD) affect bumble bees?

No.  CCD is a syndrome exclusive to honey bees.  It describes a condition where all of the worker honey bees mysteriously vanish from the hive, leaving behind a healthy queen and brood, as well as plenty of honey reserves.  There are no dead bees to be seen – they simply disappear.  First discovered in 2006/7, CCD has since all but disappeared.  There have been no confirmed cases in several years.

Are neonicotinoids killing bumble bees?

This often asked question (as well as heavily-reported on subject) defies a simple yes or no answer.

Neonicotinoids are a special type of insecticide that are systemic.  Instead of killing insects by contacting them directly or having the insect ingest the chemical, neonicotinoids are applied to plants and taken up by the plant vascular system.  The chemical is then distributed throughout the plant, making plant tissues themselves toxic.  The tissues reached include the pollen and nectar, albeit in relatively small concentrations.

First developed in the early 90’s, neonics are now one of the most widely used insecticides in the United States, particularly in crops such as corn and soybeans.  The rise in popularity of these chemicals was thanks to marketing the as safer alternative to traditional, more generalized insecticides.

Because the chemicals are present in pollen and nectar, bumble bees are exposed to low doses of neonics when foraging and feeding on flowers.  Typically, the exposure they receive isn’t enough to kill them outright (though occasionally it can).  Instead, low-doses cause non-lethal effect such as reduced cognitive capacity, confusion, and navigational failure.  This exposure can lead to reduced colony success, and has been implicated in bumble bee declines.  The issues associated with neonicotinoids has lead to a partial, and pending all-out ban in European Union countries.

In short, neonics certainly have a piece of the pie when it comes to factors in bumble bee declines.  A plethora of research into the effects of neonics on all manner of bumble bee biology is ongoing.

How can I help conserve bumble bees?

See our page on conserving bumble bees for more in-depth answers.  In short, bumble bees need 3 things:

  1. Food.  In the form of flowers.  It’s best to plant native wild flowers, and to have a minimum of 2-3 species of flowers blooming from May until October.
  2. Nest habitat.  Leave patches of bare ground, cavities (especially rodent burrows), and thatchy grass in your yard.  You can also try to build nest boxes for bumble bees.
  3. Protection from pesticides.  Reduce or eliminate pesticide usage in your yard.  Opt instead for other means of controlling weeds and pest insects.  If you need to apply, do so with bees in mind.  Apply at night, or cover treated plants to dissuade bumble, and other bees from visiting.

Does keeping honey bees help bumble bees?

With all of the media coverage surrounding bee declines, many concerned citizens have taken up bee keeping in attempts to “save the bees.”  Despite the troubles facing honey bees including diseases and high overwintering losses, they not at risk of extinction.  Many wild bees, however, are at risk.

Because honey bees aren’t at risk, keeping colonies will not aid bumble bees.  A way to think about this:  If orioles became endangered, would you start keeping backyard chickens to help save them?

The best way to help bumble bees is to plant native, attractive wildflowers in your yard.

Does keeping honey bees hurt bumble bees?

This is a debated topic in the field.  A recent review paper by our lab found evidence that honey bees can have negative effects on wild bees (including bumble bees) by competing with them for flowers, transmitting diseases, and altering plant communities in ways that negatively impact wild bees.  While the evidence is not conclusive, application of the precautionary principle suggests that we should be careful to avoid high densities of honey bees in areas we know to harbor imperiled bumble bees, such as the rusty-patched.

How far can bumble bees fly?

The simple answer, is that it varies.  Flight distance in insects is generally a function of body size: small bees can’t fly as far as large bees as they have smaller muscles, and are more subject to environmental factors such as wind, humidity, and temperature.  Studies around the world have reported bumble bee foraging (flight) distances as short as 300-400 meters, while others have found maximal foraging ranges up to 10 kilometers – ten times farther!  Generally, we operate under the assumption that most bumble bees stay within 2000 meters of their nest.

Answering this question is difficult as bumble bees are too small to use traditional ecological tools such as radio collars or GPS tracking.  Instead, a combination of clever techniques including field tracking, micro-radio transponders, RFID, genetic data, and computer modelling have helped us hone our estimates of their maximal flight range.