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Honey bees vs Bumble bees: Not Alike

Lets take a look at the two most popular insects known to the general public. Both are members of the bee family but their live styles are not the same. As we study the likenesses and differences of Honey bees vs Bumble bees, you will see some obvious similarities. However, each has a fascinating story to tell and they may be more different than you think.

Bumble bees vs Honey bees: Key Differences

Foraging Bumble Bee and Honey Bee on flowers image.

Both of these bees are familiar visitors to a bee garden. Most of us have seen both flying around with pollen pellets on their hind legs.

They share a love of flowers and need to visit them to obtain food. But, a deeper look will reveal many key differences in the daily life of these insects.

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.

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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?

Differences in Appearance and Size

In general, Bumble bees 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.

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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.

Worker honey bee on left image.

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 Types of Bees 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.

Nests of Bumble bees & Honey bees

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.

Honey bee Hives are Filled with Wax Comb

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 – the same nest and honeycomb can be occupied for years by the same family.

Honey bees inside hive with brood in comb cells image.

Are Bumble bees as Important as Honey bees?

Both types of bees are important to our environment and have a role to play. 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.  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.

They also have pollen baskets (corbicula) in on their hind legs and actually collect more pollen than nectar. They simply do not need to store a lot of food.

Perfect use in greenhouses, they do well in pollinating peppers. Even self-pollinating peppers produce more of a crop with aided by insects.

However, Bumble bees live in small colonies. They can not be managed and moved in large numbers as is possible the honey bee colonies.

So while individual Bumble bees are better pollinators, honey bee colonies are more important to pollination efforts in modern agriculture.

Bumble bee foraging on white flower image.

Only Honey Bees Dance to Communicate

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 and forage in cooler temperatures than honey bees.

Do Bumble Bees Sting?

Yes, female bumble bees have a stinger and they know how to use it. As with many other types of bees, males have no 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.

However, 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.

Keep in mind that you can be allergic to any type of venom. Always seek medical advice if you experience bumble bee stings. Sometimes allergic symptoms don’t show up after the first sting, but they may appear after the next one.

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.

It’s a known fact that Honey bees are major honey producers. They make and store large quantities of honey to feed the colony during Winter. In fact, they do such a good job that we can share in the harvest too.

Bumble bee and honey bee on flowers side by side image.

When we compare these two, in the competition of Honey bee vs Bumble bee – which one is best?  Neither bee is better than the other. 

Each one has specialized body parts and life styles that allow them to function in nature.  The similarities between the two types of bees and the differences allow for the wonderful diversity of nature.

Both insects are common visitors to the garden. It is not unusual for folks who don’t really know what a honey bee looks like to make a mistake in identification.

Enjoy their beauty while taking your daily walk. And for heavens sake don’t let your dog eat them. All pollinators play a role in our ecosystem and the balance of nature.

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.