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The Barbarian Bumblebee


I went on a road trip the other day, and while stretching my legs at a rest stop I noticed a pair of bumblebees buzzing dutifully among a clump of fireweed. I recalled that I read somewhere that bumblebees don’t produce honey, and that they live in underground nests. That had struck me as strange at the time (the honey part, I know full well that they live underground due to personal experience), especially as I had spent most of my childhood with the impression that all bees were bumblebees (as far as I can tell I’ve never seen a wild honey bee in western Washington State, and as a child I didn’t make a habit of visiting beekeepers). After all, isn’t making honey what bees are supposed to do? Isn’t that why they go around collecting nectar in the first place? Do bumblebees make honey after all? And if they don’t, then what in the world are they doing with all that nectar?

So I checked in on bumblebees, and here’s what I found.

Bumblebees do, indeed, refrain from making honey on the whole. They make some honey, but even the largest nests never have more than about 4 ounces of the sticky stuff. The reason for this is that they simply don’t need it. Honeybees make honey so that they will have food to eat through the long winter months. Bumblebees don’t make honey because they don’t plan on surviving through the winter. Every year, when winter comes, young and recently fertilized queen bumblebees find nooks and crannies to hide in and remain dormant during the cold months. The rest of the bumblebees freeze to death or starve. When spring comes the young queens awake and start brand new hives from scratch. The queen builds the first cells of the new hive, lays her first eggs, and collects nectar and pollen to feed her larvae with. It is only after four or five weeks that her children have grown enough to take over the menial labor of collecting food so that she can focus on laying eggs. Because they start over each year from scratch bumblebee hives are at their height they typically only contain about 50 bees or so. What’s especially interesting is that the female worker bumblebees are capable of reproduction, unlike honey bees. The queen bee dominates the early workers and prevents them from becoming fertile, but by the end of the season many of her children start having kids of their own. All of these children are male (bizarrely bumblebees can produce male eggs without mating, and can only produce female bees if they have been fertilized by a male) and flee the hive to find roving young queens to mate with.

Since bumblebees don’t survive through the winter they don’t need to bother with honey. They eat pollen and fresh nectar, straight from the flower. From a human perspective this almost seems like a waste: they collect all that nectar and don’t produce a drop of honey for us to eat! Yet bumblebees are vitally important for agriculture. They are hardworking pollinators, and there are several species of plant that can only be effectively pollinated by bumblebees. Some companies cultivate bumblebees for commercial pollination services, and such bees are used in greenhouses and fields across the globe. Have you ever enjoyed hothouse tomatoes? Chances are good that it was pollinated by a bumblebee.

As soon as I learned all this I was struck by the romantic notion that honey bees, if they could think and talk, would likely look down at bumblebees as uncivilized barbarians. While honey bees make great citylike hives that contain thousands of individuals bumblebees make do with small “tribes” of 50 or so that come and go with the seasons. I could well imagine some scandalized honey bee relating to her friends, over a civilized lunch of honey, that “Those barbarians are so underdeveloped that their workers lay eggs!” And now the romance grows in my mind: a group of hardworking honey bees, cautious and wary as they collect nectar in the wilderness far from their grand city home, encounter a wild and savage bumblebee, hairy, large, uncouth, and uncivilized. One thing I forgot to mention is that bumblebees, unlike honey bees, can sting multiple times without dying. How frightening then must a bumblebee seem to a honey bee; perhaps as frightening and unpredictable as a wild mountain man seems to the modern city dweller, or an African bushman to an African businessman. The bumblebee seems a bushy and sizable creature, with strong limbs and thick fur coat that would no doubt intimidate the more effete and clean-shaven honey bees. To be sure the honey bees have numbers on their side, but it must give them pause to know that this barbarian, obviously their inferior in culture and science, could kill any one of them and walk away from it unharmed. How wild and free must bumblebees seem to a honey bee. They go where they will, they don’t plan for the future, and even their workers can become mothers. Would a honey bee, in a burst of whimsy, almost envy the bumblebee the way that a modern cubicle dweller might envy for a moment the rugged life of the mountain man? Of course the bee, just like the cubicle dweller, would turn back to its work in the end, reminding itself that the grass is always greener on the other side and knowing in its heart that it wouldn’t stand a chance out on its own anyway and that at least it won’t starve come winter.