Buzzing Bumblebees

Bumblebee by Jack Ballard

Diverse in size and feeding habits, bees exhibit a wide range of social structures. Most people have some elementary understanding of the complex relationships of bees in a honey-producing hive. A hive of honey bees may contain up to 40,000 bees, with the queen producing 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day to replace worker bees lost to predators while foraging and those dying of old age. However, there are many forms of bees who exist in colonies containing a few dozen to a few hundred individuals. Bumblebee colonies typical contain around 50 to 200 bees in August or early September when their population is at its highest.

Bumblebees are among the bulkiest bees in America. Important pollinators, bumblebees are often seen buzzing around suburban vegetable and flower gardens. Their flight has been characterized in song, and also described as defying the laws of flight. While bumblebees’ aerial antics are certainly worthy of a melody, the supposed theoretical prohibitions on their flight are in error. The idea that bumblebees are theoretically incapable of flight probably stems from a book by French scientists published in the 1930s where the authors applied principles of fixed-wing flight to the bees. More recent analysis shows that bumblebees use exceedingly fast, irregular and rotational wing movements which generate sufficient lift and propulsion for their buzzing, erratic patterns of flight.

Although some people believe bumblebees are incapable of stinging, both queen and worker bumblebees can sting. While camping at a lake at the base of the Beartooth Mountains, my daughter was once stung by a bumblebee. She reported, however, that the sting wasn’t nearly so painful as one delivered by a yellowjacket.

Often misunderstood, bumblebees are an integral strand in the complex web of biological interactions that maintain life on earth. Encountering a bee in the garden or camp isn’t a cause for alarm, but an opportunity to consider their critical connection to human life and our need to maintain a planet hospitable to our buzzing benefactors.

Jack Ballard

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One Response to “Buzzing Bumblebees”

  1. Christine Bastian says:

    Thanks for this. It is maddening how misunderstood Bumble and Honey bees are. I used to “pet” them as a child. I’ve taught my children the same. Any type of fuzzy bee will die when they sting, so they avoid it in almost every circumstance. Very different from wasps and hornets, that almost seem to be looking for an excuse to get you. A strong population of Bumble bees or Honey bees in your area will keep wasps and hornets at bay. People who understand their benefits feel relief, not fear when they see them happily buzzing away in their backyards. Thanks Jack for the corrective information.

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