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What is a Bumblebee?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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A bumblebee is a bee in the genus Bombus, which contains numerous species found all over the world. Bumblebees are important pollinators for numerous crops and flowers, and as a result, their populations are closely monitored by researchers interested in the health of crops grown for human consumption. In some areas, bumblebee populations appear to be declining, due to habitat pressures and human encroachment, and this has raised concerns about the future of agriculture.

The word “bumblebee” might sound like it is a reference to the way bumblebees seem to bumble from flower to flower, but it is in fact derived from the Middle English bombeln, a word which means “to boom” or “to buzz,” referencing the humming sound produced by the wing muscles of bumblebees.

Like other bees, bumblebees have adapted to feed on the pollen and nectar of plants, with specially-designed long tongues which help them access sequestered flower nectar. They have six legs and a set of segmented antennae. Bumblebees are also notably bulky in shape, and they are often very hairy, with the hair being silky and soft. Many bumblebees have the distinctive black and yellow stripes which people associate with these bees, but they can also be marked with orange or red, or they may be solidly colored.

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These bees communicate with various scents which can be used to convey information. Many species, for example, scent-mark flowers after they have taken nectar, so that other bees know that the flower has already been exploited.

Bumblebees are social creatures, and they prefer to nest in the ground, often taking over holes left behind by other animals. A bumblebee colony starts with the queen, who overwinters, seeks out a nest, and then lays the eggs which will form the base of the colony. Once the eggs hatch, she provides the larvae with nutrition until they mature into adult bees, and a caste system of queen, drones, and workers emerges. At the end of the warm season, the bumblebees die off, leaving behind a new queen to overwinter.

These bees are capable of stinging, and will do so in self defense. Because their stingers are not barbed, they can sting multiple times, as people who have managed to infuriate a bumblebee colony may have already learned. As a general rule, however, bumblebees are benign, and their presence should actually be welcomed, since they will keep plants in the garden pollinated so that they will mature and bear fruit or seeds.

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