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Honey bees vs Bumble bees: {Alike & Different}

Lets take a look at the two most popular insects known to the general public. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who does not know about these interesting creatures.  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-How Alike Are They?

Too very familiar insects that almost anyone knows about, they share many similarities – including a love for flowers. In fact, they are so common that we get a bit lax in how we write their names. Yes, believe it or not – you will see the names written in different ways.

Foraging Bumble Bee and Honey Bee on flowers image.

Honey bee or Honeybee – 1 Word or 2?

So, 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. Conversely, a Butterfly is not a true fly – hence its name is written as one word.

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?

Honey bee vs Bumble bee -Appearance and Size

Bumble bees are large, round and very fuzzy. With a distinctive black or brown color and bright yellow stripes, they are easy to spot in the garden. However, there are more than 250 bumble bee species and they come in all sizes.

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.

Worker honey bee on left image.

The Honey bee is smaller and sleeker. Unlike Bumblers, who look to be all of one piece, Honey bees do have an obvious mid-section and are smaller with less hair on their body. Both insects have knee-like structures on their legs.

Both Types of Bees are Social Insects

Honey bees live in large social colonies with thousands of workers. The queen lays eggs but does not care for brood or babies. Female workers share all the duties of the hive.

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.

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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 colony too. 

The family unit consists of a only few hundred individuals-much smaller than a colony of honey bees.

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.

Size is also a factor due to the fact that the colony of Bumble bees will have drastically fewer members and is only seasonal.

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. Bumble bee queens will 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.

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

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.

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. 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.

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.

Is a Bumble Bee Sting Worse than a Honey Bee Sting?

Both types of bees have a stinger and can sting when provoked.  A honey bee can only sting once due to her barbed stinger.

The Bumble bee has a smooth stinger that is capable of stinging you more than once.

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.

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. They also come out and forage in cooler temperatures than honey bees.

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. 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.

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