Honey bees vs Bumble bees

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If you compare the characteristics of Honey bees vs Bumble bees, you will see some obvious similarities. Both are members of the bee family but their life styles are not the same. Lets take a look at the two most popular insects known to the general public.

Foraging Bumble Bee and Honey Bee on flowers image.

Both of these popular pollinator bees are insects. They share many of the same characteristics. But, a deeper look will reveal many key differences in their lifestyles.

Key Differences Between Honey bees and Bumble Bees

In general, Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) are large, round and very fuzzy. However, there are more than 250 bumble bee species and they come in all sizes.

Even the small varieties have a fuzzy appearance. With a distinctive black or brown color and bright yellow stripes, they are easy to spot in the garden.

Bumbles are often some of the first bees you see in the Spring. They are able to heat up their wings for flight at cooler foraging temperatures than some insects.

Graphic outline of honey bee and bumble bee appearance.

The Honey bee (Apis mellifera) is a smaller and sleeker insect. They have less of a round appearance. The color of honey bees can range from light to very dark.

Honey bees do have an obvious mid-section (though not a wasp waist). It is easier to see the three sections of a honey bee (head, thorax, abdomen).

Also, they are smaller with less hair on the body. They just don’t look as fuzzy. Both insects have knee-like structures on their legs and the ability to carry pollen.

Both are Social Insects

We might think that two bees that are both social insects would have a very similar nest life. This is not true. Life in the honey bee colony is different than that in a bumble bee nest.

Honey bees live in large social colonies with thousands of worker bees. These female workers hare all the duties of the hive.

The queen lays eggs but does not care for young at any time. This job falls to the young adults working as nurse bees.

The colony can live for many years in the same location. Aging bees are continuously replaced with new adults and the queen bee can live for several years before she is replaced.

Bumble bees are one of only a few bees native to the US that are considered social insects. They have a queen and workers in the nest too. 

The family unit consists of a only few hundred individuals-much smaller than a colony of honey bees. The queen is responsible for taking care of the young in the beginning – until she raises some workers to take over nest duties.

Ground nest of bumble bees with brood and adults image.

Nesting Habits

Both of these important insects build nests, but there are many differences between them. Bumbles often nest underground – while a colony of honey bees rarely lives in the ground.

In additional to having a much smaller population, the nest of Bumble bees is only seasonal. A new one is constructed each Spring.

Bumble bee Nest

The queen Bumble bee builds a nest, lays eggs and cares for the brood until the first adults are reared, then they take over these tasks.

Only the queen Bumble bee will live to see the next season. She hibernates under leaves and other garden debris until Spring. The other members of the colony die when cold weather arrives.

Bumble bees nest in old burrows of rodents – in the ground. Or, the queen may choose piles of ground debris or the foundation area of a house.

The insulating nest is constructed using dry grass, stems and other plant material. Once the nest is ready the queen creates a few small wax cells scattered around the nest to hold eggs and brood.

Unlike the honey bee hive, this nest is abandoned after one season. In late Summer, new queens and drones are produced. After they mate, Bumble bee queens go into hibernation and begin anew in the Spring.

Beeswax combs built by honey bees with cells for their use.

Honey bees Build Nests with Wax

Whether they take up residence in a hollow tree or a man-made hive, honey bees make beeswax to build the many combs that hold their food and bee brood. In nature, hives are often elevated to protect them from predators.

Several sheets of wax honeycomb fill the interior of the hive and contain thousands of individual hexagonal wax cells. This orderly arrangement allows the bees to make use of all the space inside.

Unless the colony dies, or absconds (bees leave the hive) – the same nest and honeycomb can be occupied for years by the same family.

Bumble Bee vs Honey Bee: Pollination Efforts

Both types of bees are important to our environment and have a role to play. Honey bee colonies are more important to pollination efforts in modern agriculture. They help produce crops of apples, melons and other fruits and vegetables.

Because they live in large colonies, their hives are more portable. They are easier to move from one field to another for good bee pollination. In fact, migratory beekeepers make a living doing exactly that.

However, Bumble bees are better pollinators than honey bees for some plants. They practice “buzz pollination” and can carry more pollen due to their large size. They provide important pollination for wildflowers and other plants that feed wildlife.

Due to a variety of species, they are more adaptable to flower types. Also, different length tongues etc makes them more efficient at plant pollination for a wider variety of flowers.

Bumble bees do well pollinating plants in greenhouses. Even self-pollinating peppers produce more of a crop with aided by insects. Honey bee however – just want out of the greenhouse.

Honey bee and Bumble bee involved in flower pollination.

Only Honey Bees Dance

Another unique difference, unlike honey bees that dance to communicate rich nectar sources, Bumble bees do not. They are more likely to stay in a general area searching out each morsel of food. 

Yet, while the honey bee races off to a better nectar source, the bumbles might be providing more consistent pollination of plants in an certain area.

This is why they are considered more efficient pollinators for certain crops. They also come out in cooler temperatures than honey bees.

Different Stingers

Just like honey bees, female bumble bees have a stinger and they know how to use it. Though not all bees sting, in these groups the males lack a stinger.

Like the wasp, a bumble has no barbs on her stinger. Bumble bees can sting you more than once. A honey bee can only sting once due to her barbed stinger.

And, Bumble bees are much less likely to sting unless they are seriously provoked. The fact that they live in smaller colonies also reduces the likely hood of multiple stinging situations.

Diagram showing that honey bee and bumble bee are two words because both are types of bees.

Honey bee or Honeybee – 1 Word or 2?

Let’s get this issue out of the way upfront. What is the proper way to write the names of these 2 insects? Is it 1 word or 2 words? Honey bee or Honeybee – Bumble bee or Bumblebee.

An entomologist, someone who scientifically studies insects, tells us that both of these should be 2 words. This is due to the fact that they are both actually members of the “bee” family

They are both members of the apidae family. The first word in their name describes what kind of bee they are. That makes sense right?

Conversely, a Butterfly is not a true fly. Therefore it’s name name is written as one word. Another example, a starfish is one word – it is not really a type of fish.

Why do we see these names written both ways so often? Perhaps, it is because the primary purpose of the written word is communication. You know what I am talking about whether I write the name as one word or two.

Therefore, you will often see these names commonly used in condensed form as one word.  And, that’s okay – right?


Are honey bees and bumble bees the same type of insect?

No, they are related but honey bees and bumble bees are different species with their own behaviors and characteristics.

Are honey bees and bumble bees endangered?

Neither type honey bees or bumble bees are on the endangered list. However, both have suffered population decline in recent years.

Can Bumble bees make honey?

Bumble bees do make honey. However, the amount of honey produced is very small and used in the nest. No honey storage is necessary because the colony does not over Winter.

Do Bumble bees sting?

Yes, female Bumble bees can and do sting if seriously provoked. They are also capable of stinging more than once.

Can I keep Bumble bees in a hive?

Generally, no you cant not keep them in a hive like honey bees. They have smaller families and do not produce abundant honey. Sometimes, they are housed in small boxes inside large greenhouses.

A Final Word

Bumbles and Honey bees are two of the most appreciated insects on the planet. From the common use of bee quotes to the hundreds of bee themed gifts you can buy – we love bees.

Enjoy their beauty while taking your daily walk – on a warm day some are sure to be buzzing around.

If you don’t really know what a honey bee looks like a mistake in identification is possible. And for heavens sake don’t let your dog eat them.

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