Bumble Bees

Bombus pascuorum male

When honeybees are mentioned people often think of the round furry bumblebees. In fact bumblebees are not the bees that are kept in beehives and have a much simpler life cycle than the more complex honeybee community.

Life Cycle

The main features of the bumble bees life cycle is that ‘queen’ bumblebees (reproductive females) are produced at the end of the summer and hibernate snugly as individuals over the winter. When spring arrives the queen must start the nest, lay all the eggs, incubate them and feed the young larvae. She is a busy, multitasking individual.

Bumble bee feeding on chaenomeles (Photo Margaret Cowley)

Only females are born so they cannot mate so have no option but to become workers and look after the colony. The queen eats the few unfertilised eggs they lay. With more helpers, the queen can stay in the nest and concentrate on egg laying. As more workers are produced the colony gets larger and it members better fed. As she gets older, the queen stops eating the worker eggs and these develop into drones. The larvae produced from the queens eggs are now well fed by a large workforce and develop into fully reproductive females with drones available for mating. Finally, the old workers and drones die and the new young queens hibernate to start the cycle again next spring.

About 25 species of Bumblebee are listed in the UK but only about 6 are at all common. As their nest sites disappear so do they.

Adapted from Honey bee beginnings (part 2) by Celia Davis NDB Beecraft Jan 2005. For more about the evolution of social bees see Beecraft issues Dec 2004 and Jan 2005.

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