Who doesn’t find bumblebees and bumblebee nests fascinating? Often confused with the more popular bees, it’s actually not hard to tell them apart once you know what to look for. Bumblebees are chubby, furry, and have more lively fur. They also produce less honey and will sting more than once.
Because they look so similar to bees, it’s a common misconception (or assumption) that bumblebees live in beehives, but it doesn’t. Bumblebee nests are very different from beehives, and understanding them can help bumblebees fight extinction.
What does the outside of a bumble bee hive look like?
Unlike beehives, which are easy to spot, bumblebee nests are difficult to spot. They usually form under compost, grass or other natural waste. They can also hide in trees, in bird feeders, and even in the nooks and crannies of your home or shed.
Rodent burrows are another common place for bumblebees to nest.
I think it’s safe to say that a bumblebee’s nest is the exact opposite of what we imagine an apiary to look like. First of all, while they look really good, they’re not the most attractive habitats – even more so if you have a dengue phobia and can’t stand seeing irregular patterns.
The den may seem a little…easy. Bee colonies are much smaller than bees and build their nests every year. Once they’ve done their job, the bees pack up and leave. When they are useful to you again, they will start their nests from scratch.
These nests are not easy to describe because they are all different. Unlike beehives, they are irregular and, superficially, do not conform to a single design or pattern. The nest is somewhat disorganized and looks more like a ball of eggs held together with goo than a comb.
Although disorganized, they are clean – bumblebees keep dead old larvae outside the nest to prevent the spread of disease inside the nest.
Nests are not suspended and are mostly hidden behind (or under) some sort of foliage or shelter for protection from weather conditions and predators.
Sunlight can cause nests to overheat, so they are usually in shade or relatively dark places. With this in mind, it is much easier to identify a person based on their activities than their appearance.
If you are determined to find a nest, the easiest way is to follow the bees there. The bumblebee returns to the nest after feeding. So if you catch one eating lunch, watch where it goes – it may lead you straight to the lair.
Also listen to the bees. Bumblebees congregate around their nests, and if the nest is hidden nearby, you should be able to hear it even if there are no signs. If you spot a swarm of bees around your nest, don’t panic – they’re usually male and don’t sting. However, be careful when approaching one.
What is the inside of a bumble bee hive?
The interior of a bumblebee hive is easier to describe. Although their design varies from colony to colony, their behavior is nearly identical. It’s from their mating.
Once the queen bumblebee wakes up from hibernation, she finds a nesting place. She makes cells out of wax, and then lays fertilized eggs in them.
Not all hornets cover these cells with wax, although some do it for added protection. The nest itself is built from brood.
The location of the cells has been found to affect the size of the bees that emerge from them. Cells closer to the center get more food and the bees get bigger. Cells further back are fed more discreetly.
When the female hatches from these eggs, the bumblebee colony becomes similar to a bee hive, with workers maintaining order by raising the young, protecting the nest and foraging.
Now with workers, the queen will once again spawn – this time with drones – allowing the colony to grow.
Bumblebees also produce honey for their own use. They store excess nectar and pollen in wax pots around the nest.
How do bumblebees choose their nesting sites?
Species are the most important factor in nesting conditions, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to where bumblebees prefer to settle. However, most bumblebees nest in dark, dry places that are uninhabited and hidden.
As mentioned earlier, a bumblebee nest only forms when the queen bee finds the right environment for her eggs. Queens mate in the fall and store fertilized eggs throughout the winter. Spring is settling season for bumblebees, and their nest-seeking flight patterns are easy to spot.
The queen determines if a place is viable by exploring her surroundings and using her sense of smell. When she finds a potential opening, she digs a little deeper by entering the hole, room, tunnel, or habitat she finds. If she likes what she sees, she will settle down. If not, she will continue her mission and keep looking until she finds a place that suits her.
Bumblebees, no matter where their nests are – in trees, under grass, or hidden in your shed – always camp close to the ground (even on or below the ground) and out of direct sunlight.
Although their nests are annual, bumblebee queens never return to their old nests after moving. They can return to the same area, but they will not live in the den they have left.
How is a bumble bee nest made?
Unlike carpenter bees, bumblebees do not dig. They prefer to use any holes or crevices formed by other creatures. They also don’t have the anatomy to design complex nests using what’s around them, so they usually settle into spaces they can already accommodate.
They can collect small leaves or debris, but cannot build with them. That’s one reason bumblebee nests are so messy.
Bumblebees build their nests with wax and use the wax to hold their nests together. There’s no order in how they do it, which is further evidence of why the den looks so disjointed.
The wax itself is not much different from bees wax. Queen bumblebees excrete it from the abdomen, it is used to protect the larvae, and they make flowerpots to store nectar and pollen.
Bumblebees don’t build combs because they don’t need to store nectar for long periods of time. Even if they needed a comb, building them would be a waste of energy, as the nest would be abandoned in winter anyway.
How many bumblebees can a nest hold?
Bumblebee colonies vary in size, and their nests can accommodate colonies of as few as 20 bees to as many as 1,000. On average, however, bumblebee hives range from 50 to 400 bees.
The demographics of the colony are also interesting. Queen ants establish colonies, so there is usually only one. Worker bees are born first, and once they have hatched, they start tending the nest.
Drones and new queens will be introduced once the hives are operational. Like bees, drones don’t contribute much to bumblebee hives and can reproduce. Drones and new queens mate in late summer.
Once the new queen mates, she returns to the nest to feed. However, drones rarely return. When winter comes, all but the queen will die. The queen will hibernate, and when she emerges in the spring, she will find a new place to settle down, and the cycle continues.
Threats to Bumblebee Hives
While bumblebees are cautious and like to hide their nests, they still have to face some risks. They have many natural enemies.
Bandit flies hunt bumblebees by capturing them with their wings. Crab spiders have been observed chasing bumblebees while foraging for flowers. Beewolves – a type of wasp – like to attack bumblebees looking for food and hunt them down by paralyzing them, trapping them and storing the bees in their hives.
Certain birds are also known for hunting bumblebees, including bee-eaters (not surprisingly), chickadees, and spotted flycatchers.
As for attacks on nests, some creatures raid bumblebee nests in search of nests, wax, and nectar.
Badgers, bears, skunks and foxes are major threats to bumblebee nests, as they will eat anything in sight – even bees. To a lesser extent, weasels, hedgehogs, foxes and voles also attack dens.
Another threat is disease. Like bees, hornet colonies could be wiped out if disease spreads through them. In 2014, it was discovered that a disease known to affect honeybees was also infecting bumblebee colonies.
Parasites are also a problem, and it is believed that more bumblebees are killed by parasites than by predators. The main cause of this is the wax moth, which is responsible for about 80 percent of the destruction of bumblebee nests.
The last is human intervention. While we don’t usually collect honey from bumblebees and prefer to avoid them, their tendency to nest under sheds or people’s homes can cause them trouble.
Many bumblebee nests are disturbed or even destroyed by unfriendly people. Perhaps this is a factor that has put at least seven species of bumblebee under threat of extinction.
What to do if you find a bumblebee nest?
Bumblebee nests are well hidden, so it’s unlikely to stumble upon one. Still, they settle in our sheds, gardens and even houses, so it’s not impossible. You may also be lucky (or unlucky) to encounter one in nature, so here’s what you should do:
Do not disturb the nest?
Bumblebees aren’t as aggressive as bees, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. If they feel threatened, they can and will sting you – and they can sting you multiple times, so be careful.
Bumblebees build nests to protect their queen, food, and larvae. They can easily defend and attack you if you interfere or if they sense you will interfere.
If you want to see the nest, don’t touch anything and try not to breathe too close or make noise. For your safety, please keep your distance.
Leave them be
Or should I say leave them, bee?
Bumblebee nests are temporary and will shed within a few months without intervention. If they don’t bother you or are a threat to you, it’s best not to bother them. Once winter arrives, most of the colony will die and the queen will leave the lair, probably never returning.
Relocating the Bumblebee
It’s rarely necessary to kill them, but it’s understandable if they get in your way, or you just don’t feel comfortable having them around.
If this is the case and you don’t want to wait for the nest to fall off on its own, you can move it – although this is definitely not recommended. Bumblebees will not harm your home, shed or garden. However, if you insist on getting rid of them, here are some suggestions:
- It’s always better to hire a beekeeper (not a pest control person) to do this. Most pest control companies, even fumigators, destroy the hive and kill the bees, which is completely unnecessary.
- If you insist on relocating them yourself (please don’t), be aware that moving their nests will make them worse and protecting yourself from bites is critical. Make sure your skin is not exposed and your face is well covered.
- When the bees will rest at night, it will be easier to move them because they will not be flying in the dark.
- Bright lights can bother them, so if you can’t see what you’re doing, use red lights whenever possible.
- If there is a den underground, digging there is sure to annoy them.
- If they are nested in a nest box or other container, blocking the entrance to keep them inside will make it easier for them to move. Remember to release them after the move is complete.
- Entrances to your shed or other areas that might disturb you can also be blocked off to divert their path so they don’t get in your way. Give them an alternative and they’ll use it. But please don’t include them here either.
Help bumblebees build their nests
If you want to help them, you can create the perfect nesting site for bumblebees. There are many ways to build a handy and practical box for a bumblebee, and they usually require very few resources and even less skill.
Designing can be a process, but if you don’t know where to start, there are some resources online that might help.
Nest boxes can be made of wood, stone, Styrofoam, ceramic, cardboard or even flower pots. You can add wood chips, hay, rock wool, dried leaves, and other types of dry materials for bees to build their nests. You may also need a net to keep bees away from you and predators away from bees.
You can also leave treats in the box. Bees will be happy with sugar water, although some will add diluted honey.
When bumblebees reject your box, don’t take it personally. They’re picky about their placement and it may take a few tries before you create what they’re attracted to. You can force the bees to do this if you make up your mind, but they may not like it. If they want to go, you should let them go.