Honey bees are among the most useful creatures on earth; not only do they provide us with honey and other byproducts that we can consume as food, but honey bees and other bees play a crucial role in the pollination of plant life. It has been estimated that up to 30 percent of the food that humans consume around the world is reliant upon pollination by bees. However, we are just as likely to find bumblebees in our gardens as honey bees; how do these two types of bees differ?
Both honey bees and bumblebees are members of the family Apidae; honey bees belong to the genus Apis and bumblebees to the genus Bombus. Although there are more than 250 known species of bumblebee, there are only 7 recognized species of honey bee. Both play a role in the pollination of plant life. Both are social animals, living in colonies, and thus worker bees gather nectar from flowers to take back to their colonies, for consumption and to feed to their young.
Beekeepers raise honey bees for honey, beeswax, and other commercial products; bee colonies kept by beekeepers can last many years, and honey bees in the wild also tend to establish permanent homes. Typical honey bee colonies have 30,000 to 50,000 bees, whether domesticated or in the wild; the vast majority of the bees in a colony are female worker bees, who are sterile and perform nearly all the work of the colony. Colonies also contain a queen, who is capable of laying eggs and producing young; and a few hundred male drones, whose only function is to mate with the queen.
Bumblebees, on the other hand, have much smaller colonies — sometimes fewer than a hundred bees. Bumblebees do not construct permanent homes as honeybees do; they often nest in tunnels in the ground, though sometimes they will manufacture a wax canopy for protection. Bumblebee societies are structured similarly to those of honey bees, with workers, drones, and a queen all fulfilling specific functions, but bumblebee workers are not sterile; they are able to lay haploid eggs that develop into male drones. Only queens are able to lay diploid eggs that can mature into female workers and queens as well as males.
This reproductive competition between the queen and the workers results in colony behavior that differs from that of honey bees. Early in the reproductive season, the queen will suppress the egg-laying ability of her workers by physical aggression as well as pheromonal signals. The queen will thus produce all the first male larvae of that season, as well as all the female larvae. As the queen’s ability to suppress the workers wanes later in the season, worker bees, too, will begin to lay eggs that produce male larvae.
After they have matured, new males and queens will be driven from the colony; these outcasts spend nights on flowers or in cavities in the ground. The queens and drones will also mate with each other; a mated queen will search for a suitable location to hibernate through the winter. The following spring, the queen will emerge from hibernation and find a location for a nest. The queen, then, forms a new colony and broods her eggs on her own.
Bumblebees do produce honey, from the nectar they gather from flowers; the process is similar to that of honey bees. However, honey bees tend to produce more honey than they need; it is thus easy for beekeepers to harvest honey from domestic hives while leaving enough for the honey bees’ own needs. Because bumblebee colonies are so much smaller, they are barely able to produce enough honey for themselves; beekeepers therefore do not attempt to raise bumblebees for their honey. Additionally, it is difficult and usually destructive to extract honey from wild bumblebee nests. Bumblebee honey is perfectly edible, but thinner and more watery than honey bee honey.
It sometimes may be hard to distinguish between a honey bee and a bumblebee, but they are distinct animals with different habits and life cycles.