Honeybees, Bumblebees and the Case of the Collapsing Hive

By: Angela Grill

August 07, 2019

Category: Nature Notes

When you hear a loud buzz, what do you think of? It could be a honeybee, bumblebee, mason bee, sweat bee, mining bee — or even a wasp! 

Did you know there are nearly 20,000 known bee species in the world? Nearly 4,000 bees are found in North America, and roughly 400 of those species call Minnesota home. Each varies wildly in appearance, behavior, and habitats.

The variety is overwhelming! Let’s dip our toe in the water with two well-known groups: honeybees and bumblebees.  

Honeybees: Industrial-strength Pollinators

close up image of a honeybee
Honeybee, Apis mellifera. Photo courtesy of Sam Droege

What do cows and honeybees have in common?  

Both are recognized as livestock by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Honeybees have been domesticated through selective breeding to maximize honey and pollination productivity. We’ve even figured out how to move colonies around as needed.

Honeybees are not native to North America, though. They arrived with European settlers in the 1600s. Because they form huge, social colonies honeybees work well with the farming model here. They’re important pollinators of over 100 crops grown in North America. 

This model worked decently well through the early 2000s. Then in the winter of 2006-07, something strange happened. 

Beekeepers saw massive losses to their hives, and the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was coined to describe losses from mysterious causes.

Money poured in for research. The “why” is a topic for another post, but in summary, management practices, new pesticides, introduced pests, and poor diet caused the bees’ immunity to plunge while pathogen rates soared.

Here’s the kicker, though: Honeybee pathogens transfer to native bees when they feed from the same flowers. Similar to how germs pass from one human to another through a shared cup of coffee, door handle, or other surface. 

If honeybees are crashing, what’s happening to native bees then?

Glad you asked.

In short, no one really knew. If honeybees are the canary in the coal mine, we’re overdue to figure out what’s up with native bees. 

Our best-known native bee: the Bumblebee

close up of an eastern bumblebee
Eastern bumblebee, Bombus impatiens. Photo courtesy of Sam Droege

Bumblebees are more like honeybees than any other native bees but very different at the same time. They’re fluffy (pollen sticks better). They’re less picky about the weather. They have longer tongues. And they can literally bounce pollen from flowers to their fuzzy bodies by vibrating their wing muscles — a technique known as buzz or sonic pollination (how cool is that?!).

Let’s compare and contrast honeybees and bumblebees (or bumbles), beyond the pollination specifics:

  • Social. Honeybee colonies are filled with tens of thousands of bees. Bumbles live in loose colonies with a few hundred others.
  • Queens. Honeybees can overwinter the entire colony IF honey reserves and weather cooperate. Bumble queens overwinter and “get the party started” in spring. Honeybee queens are longer lived at 3-4 years versus 1 year for bumbles. 
  • Collecting pollen. They both carry pollen on a pollen basket on their hind legs called a corbicula. Honeybees rely more on their corbicula, and bumbles can carry it here-there-and-everywhere on fuzzy bodies. 
  • Honey. Both make honey. Honeybees go crazy and pack it into every nook and cranny. It’s their winter food source. It’s also why we can harvest their honey, which is not the case for other bee species. Bumbles make just enough to provision for poor weather stretches. 
  • Sting. Both can sting. Honeybees can only sting once. Bumbles can sting multiple times (but you have to work really hard to anger a bumblebee). 
  • Habitat. Both need diverse, high quality flower forage. Honeybees’ range is up to 2 square miles; bumbles cover shorter distances. Honeybees bees cannot fly below 55˚F, preferring to venture out at 66˚F or warmer. Bumbles fly at much cooler temps. 
  • Miscellaneous. Honeybees are one species, Apis mellifera, with regional variation, similar to domestic dog breeds. Minnesota has 22 different species of bumblebee. 

Plight of the Bumblebee

Bumblebees are vital for many crops, including many that honeybees can’t or won’t touch. Multiply bumblebee jobs by thousands of other native bee species around North America and you get the idea: Native bees are pretty important!

CCD research around honeybees has spurred exploration of native bees. Three Rivers Park District recently finished a survey in cooperation with University of Minnesota Extension. Bee blocks were installed and monitored to catalog solitary bee species. Bumblebee surveys have also been underway.

In 2018, we confirmed that the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee is in eight of our parks! To learn more on this species and its dramatic decline, check out A Ghost in the Making.  

How you can help 

Honeybees and bumblebees are just the tip of the iceberg. They comprise only 2% of bee species worldwide; the other 98% are solitary bees. All bees, native or otherwise, face similar challenges: habitat loss, increasing pesticide use, disease, and loss of diversity.

Here are some of the many ways you can support these important pollinators:

  • Keep areas of your yard “wild.” A bare patch of sandy soil or corner of leftover stems can give them habitat for nesting.
  • Limit or don’t use pesticides. These affect all invertebrates, including bees. In particular, avoid neonicotinoids. These can disrupt a bee’s navigation system and are a major contributor to CCD. 
  • Plant native species. Avoid using hybrids as these often don’t produce nectar. 
  • Aim for a range of plants that provide nectar throughout the growing season. 
  • Small habitat improvements can mean life or death for these bees, as some of them have a home range of only 300 feet! Your yard or garden are more important to helping these pollinators out than you may think.

Want to learn more about this fascinating topic? Check out this month's episodes of The Wandering Naturalist podcast!

About the Author

a woman in pink baseball cap and white shirt holds a dragonfly and smiles at the camera.

Angela graduated from Minnesota State University—Mankato with degrees in ecology and geography. She has a passion for being outdoors and ensuring conservation of the natural heritage of our lands. As a wildlife biologist at Three Rivers Park District, she enjoys working on a wide range of projects from restoring prairies to pollinator surveys. Outside of work she can be found in the garden where she is in the good company of wonder dog, Sid, and two rented chickens, Cersi Henister and Princess Leialot.

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