There are over 250 bee species in the UK. One is the infamous honey bee, 24 are bumblebees and the others are known as ‘solitary bees’.
the honey bee, apis mellifera
the bumble bee, bombus hymenoptera
the solitary bee, colletus daviesanus
Whilst the solitary bee tends to forage solo, honeybees and bumblebees are social creatures. Both bumble and honey bees live in nesting colonies wherein resides the queen bees and her team of worker bees. Bumblebees tend to average about 50-400 workers per colony whilst honeybees can consist of a team of over 50,000 workers.
As well as differences in size, their foraging tendencies differ. Honeybees perform a ‘waggle’ to communicate foraging locations to fellow workers. Bumblebees do not. However, they do lead a trail of pollen which can act as a guide for fellow buzzing bumblers.
Domestic vs Wild
Honey bees are generally domesticated and their hives tend to be managed by beekeepers. Increasingly, they are dependent upon beekeepers to keep them alive, well-fed and disease-free.
In contrast, Bumblebees are wild and capable of survival without human input.
Bumblebees collect pollen and nectar in a honey basket on their hind legs. Their buzzing and vibrating habits mean that they can get to work earlier in the year than other bees. However, this also means they get hungrier than other bees! Bumblebees have a lifespan of only one year, with the queens most enduring. Worker bumblebees live only a few months whilst queen bumblebees can live for a year. Honeybees have a longer lifespan with many worker bees as well as the queen surviving the winter.
Whilst honeybees are facing serious threats as a result of complex interrelationships of various diseases and processes of domestication, bumblebees are at risk as a result of pollen and nectar shortages. It is estimated for example that approximately 98% of the flower-rich grasslands of the UK have been lost since the 1940s. Not only are bumblebees themselves at risk. Semi-natural, flower-rich grassland habitats are dependent upon the pollinating work of the bumble bee. A whole host of edible crops also depend upon the pollination work of the bumble bee including raspberries, tomatoes, peas, beans, apples and many other crops.
Since bumblebees are dependent upon flowers for feed, we can help their survival by planting more flowers and pollen-rich plants that span the period of bumblebee activity, from early March when the queen bumblebee emerges from hibernation, through to September.
Plants that are bumblebee friendly include…
Daffodils, willow, lungwort, flowering currants, heather, bluebells.
Spring to summer:
Buddleia, foxglove, lavender, thyme, pea family such as sugarsnaps, columbine, alliums.
Mid to late summer:
Honeysuckle, cornflower, campanula, scabious, clovers.
To find out more about bumblebees and the various ways that you can help them, visit:
With thanks to Sinead at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for information and images.