“Cows produce milk.”
“Chickens lay eggs.”
“Bees make honey.”
Most children know those basic facts even before they start pre-school or kindergarten.
For most adults, however, that’s also the limit of their knowledge.
Q: How do bees make honey?
A: I have no earthly idea.
Q: Do bumblebees make honey?
A: Um, sure. I guess so.
Q: Well, what type of bees do make honey?
A: As long as there’s a bottle in the cabinet, who cares?
Unless you’re going to be a Jeopardy contestant, or want to make your kids think you’re smart, you’ll never need to know other facts, such as:
- When bees collect nectar from flowers they hold it in their mouths, where it mixes with an enzyme before being deposited into the honeycomb they build in honey bee hives.
- Or that bees help the water in the nectar to evaporate, turning it into honey, by constantly fanning their wings over the honeycomb.
- Or that honeybees cap the honeycomb with wax to protect the honey during the winter months. (They need it for food in cold weather because unlike bumblebees, honey bees don’t hibernate.)
- Or that producing just one pound of honey requires more than 500 bees collecting nectar from about two million flowers.
But it’s all pretty darn interesting, isn’t it?
Perhaps you’re now actually wondering about other questions: what type of bees make honey, and are bumblebees among them?
Let’s find out.
Not All Bees Make Honey
Believe it or not, there are about 20,000 known species of bees. Most are social insects, but only a few hundred of those species of bees produce honey. All belong to a sub-species (or genus) called “Apis,” but not all Apis bees produce honey. Some are diggers or carpenter bees, not honey-makers. And many which do produce honey make such a small amount that it can’t be harvested for human consumption.
Almost all types of bees which produce honey originally came from Asia, and have one important, distinguishing feature. They live in social colonies made up of a queen bee, sterile female worker bees (the foragers who pollinate flowers and gather nectar) and male drones (whose job is to reproduce and make new bees). Fun fact: only the females have stingers.
The most prodigious honey producers are known, not surprisingly, as “honey bees.” The ones we’re most familiar with are European or Asian honeybees, which nest in cavities when in the wild. Giant honeybees also produce a great deal of honey, but they’re native to Nepal and Asia and their stings can be deadly, so they’re not commonly found or cultivated in Western nations like the United States and Canada. A third group of honey bees are dwarf bees which nest in shrubs and trees, but they produce so little honey that beekeepers don’t bother with them.
Again, that’s all interesting. But where do bumblebees fit into the picture?
Yes, Bumblebees Do Make Honey
Many of the large, black and yellow bees with stubby wings we’re so familiar with, known to scientists as bombus, do indeed produce honey. But not all species of bumblebees make honey, and North American and European bumblebees (nearly all 255 bumblebees species are native to the northern hemisphere) don’t make enough of it to be harvested by humans.
In fact, what bumble bees produce isn’t even technically honey; it’s nectar, the raw substance collected from flowers that must have moisture removed before it becomes honey. The nectar is stored to be used as food by the colony before cold weather arrives and the queen’s long hibernation period begins. She also bulks up on the stored nectar before hibernation, to be able to survive the winter.
As you may have guessed, the males’ life cycle ends when it gets cold, and only bumblebee queens survive. Queens do mate throughout the warm season, but they mate again just before hibernating and lay eggs which will become new queens and drones in the spring. In that way, the queens create new bumble bee colonies, since each virgin queen will start her own new colony.
If you’ve come across a bumblebee nest in thick grass or in a compost heap, you were probably surprised at its small size. Honey bee colonies are large enough to house as many as 50,000 bees apiece, but you’ll only find about 100-200 bumblebees in an average colony. And since each bee makes less than 1/8 of a teaspoon of nectar during its lifetime, there’s simply not enough nectar in a bumblebee hive to be worth extracting for honey.
In nature, bumble bees nest in underground cavities or low-to-the-ground areas, not man-made hives. And they don’t produce honey for human consumption.
Then why do some people take great pains to cultivate them in man-made nest boxes, or the bumblebee nests they place in their fields?
It’s because bumblebees are the most prolific pollinators in nature.
The Importance of Bumblebees
Physiologically, bumblebees are nearly perfect pollinators. Their size and endurance lets them fly further than other bees, even in bad weather conditions. They can work earlier in the morning and later in the evening to pollinate. They’re hardier because they’re less susceptible to infestation by the mites which often ravage honey bee hives. And they’re built to efficiently move pollen quickly and efficiently.
One big reason bumblebees are so efficient at pollination is that they don’t have to land on a flower and suck up its nectar in order to collect pollen. Instead, they’re known for what’s called “buzz pollination.” They simply flap their wings at a particular frequency, and the vibrations dislodge the pollen for collection. Any nectar they gather is secondary to the pollination process.
Only some types of plants, about 10% overall, are capable of being buzz pollinated. But they’re among the most important: tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, strawberries, blueberries and watermelons. That’s why farmers encourage bumblebees to visit their crops, and some create special nesting sites for them in their fields. These bees are very important pollinators for their produce.
Bumblebees are also highly valued for pollination in greenhouses. That explains why some beekeeping farms do cultivate bumble bees – not for honey, but to be packaged and shipped to farmers who want to release them into a greenhouse environment to pollinate new crops.
So, do bumblebees make honey? They certainly do (again, distinguishing their nectar from the honey produced by honey bee colonies), but that’s not why they’re crucial to humans and the earth’s ecosystem – and it’s not why the world’s bee populations must be protected.
Bumblebees are so important because they’re needed to pollinate many of the crops we all depend on for food.