Yes, bumblebees can make honey. But unlike true honeybees in the Apis genus, they don’t make a lot of it.
Not all honey-producing bees are alike. Bumblebees are unique from honeybees in more ways than just honey production.
Why Do Bumblebees Make Honey?
Bumblebees make honey for the same reasons as honeybees do. They need it for sustenance. When nectar sources are low, the bumblebees eat honey instead.
Bees convert the glucose in honey to carbohydrates for energy. Honey is sourced from nectar, which is, basically, sugar.
The quality of nectar that plants produce plays a major role in attracting pollinating insects. Honey-producing bees will usually pass on nectar with low sugar content (less than 15 percent).
How is the Honey Produced?
When a new bumblebee colony is started, the queen is the first to produce honey. In the spring, a queen will find a prime nesting location.
Then, she starts to create nectar pots. These pots are made of a wax-like secretion the queen excretes from her abdomen.
She will head out to gather nectar and pollen from flowers. Pollen is carried on the queen’s body.
Nectar is swallowed but not digested. Instead, it stays inside her honey-stomach, or crop. This is a bag-like receptacle before the digestive tract. It can expand as the bumblebee fills it with nectar. When full, the honey stomach can take up almost all the space in the abdomen.
Once back at the nest, the queen places these food stores in the nectar pots. She regurgitates nectar into the pots and lets them dry.
By mixing with bumblebee saliva and drying out, the nectar eventually becomes honey. If the nectar isn’t dehydrated enough, it won’t preserve as well. This stored honey will keep the queen alive while she gets to the business of laying eggs.
The queen will then lay her first eggs. The larvae will grow into bumblebee workers, who then take over the hard labor. This first batch of workers will care for their mother, the queen. The queen’s responsibilities will dwindle to laying eggs to grow the colony.
The bigger workers are the ones who take expeditions out of the nest. Smaller workers stick to nest duties. These include caring for larvae, the queen, cleaning the nest, etc.
Some species of bumblebee use pollen rather than nectar to make honey. One such example is Bombus fervidus.
These bumblebees deposit a mixture of pollen and saliva into nectar pots. Pollen is chewed for a long period of time to thoroughly mix it with the saliva.
When it’s left to dry in the nectar pots, this substance turns into honey over time. The pots are then sealed once the pollen mixture is sufficiently dried out.
However, bumblebees are pollinators—not honey producers. The honey that is stored is minimal. Instead, these bees rely on nectar straight from the source—flowers and plants.
How Do Bumblebees Communicate?
Bumblebees are a social species, living and working together in the same nest. The workers, drones, and queen are all able to communicate with one another.
Communication is also necessary for food foraging. In turn, this is crucial for honey production. Without nectar, the bumblebees wouldn’t be able to produce honey.
Bumblebees are thought to be primitive in terms of communication. Since honey production isn’t a priority for them, they have little need to transmit complex messages. Honeybees are considered advanced communicators in comparison. Honeybee workers use dances to convey specific details about worthwhile nectar locations.
Bumblebee workers are made aware of nectar and pollen locations through smell. Workers return to the nest smelling of the flowers they just ate from.
These bees have a keen sense of smell. Through the odors wafting off their fellow bees, they can find the same nectar spots on their own.
Pheromones are also significant when it comes to how bumblebees communicate. The bees can emit pheromone trails for fellow bumblebees to follow.
It takes time for the bumblebees to develop this scent-based navigation system. Younger workers first have to learn the landmarks surrounding their nest. If not, a worker might not find her way home.
Bumblebees are also able to see. Once they’re out foraging, visual cues attract them to the best flowers. For a bumblebee, a quality flower is one that secretes sweet nectar.
Is Honey Made from Bumblebees Different to Others?
The honey that bumblebees produce is similar to that of honeybees. Most species of bumblebee use nectar as the base for their honey, as do honeybees.
There is one major difference, though: quantity. Since bumblebee colonies are tiny compared to those of honeybees, honey production is minimal.
Additionally, bumblebees are not perennial insects. They don’t have to worry about gathering stores of food to live through the winters.
Bumblebee colonies naturally die off as the winter months approach. The queen may live for up to one year, but not longer.
When the queen and workers die towards the end of the summer, bumblebee nests are savaged by predators. Surviving eggs and larvae are eaten by foraging animals.
The species is carried on by queens produced late in the summer. The queens then mate, storing sperm to fertilize eggs at a later date. When spring comes, these queens begin new colonies.
That being said, there is no reason for bumblebees to amass huge quantities of honey. A beekeeper who attempts to keep bumblebees for honey production will be disappointed.
Bumblebees are skilled pollinators but poor honey producers. Few people have ever tasted bumblebee honey. These bees don’t make enough for it to be worth harvesting.
At the same time, bumblebee honey can be made from diverse sources compared to other types. This is because bumblebees have more variety in the length of their proboscises than honeybees.
The proboscis is the tongue of the bee. Bumblebees can have long, mid-length, or short tongues, depending on the species. The proboscis is built to suck nectar from all sorts of flowers. As a whole species, bumblebees can pollinate more types of plants.
Take tomato flowers, for instance. Only bumblebees can extract pollen from these plants through their buzzing. The vibrations that their wings produce will shake the pollen from the flowers.
Do Bumblebees Eat Their Own Honey?
There are several circumstances under which bumblebees eat their own honey. Queens starting colonies eat the honey they have stored as they raise their young.
During this period, the bumblebee queen can’t leave her nest. The vulnerable larvae will die without her. At the same time, the queen can’t starve while she cares for her young.
Bumblebee larvae can also be fed stored honey. For the most part, adult bumblebees head out to feed on nectar directly.
If external nectar supplies vanished, the bumblebees wouldn’t live long. The average bumblebee nest doesn’t have enough honey stores for long-term survival.
Most of us will never taste bumblebee honey. Fortunately, honeybees make more than enough honey to compensate for this.
Now you have an answer to the question of whether bumblebees make honey. Bumblebees can still be kept by beekeepers for their pollination ability. Just don’t expect any sweet treats from these bees.