The honey bee and bumble bee are two of the most recognizable insects in the garden. But what similarities and differences do they have? This guide compares the honey bee and bumble bee so that you know what sets them apart.
What is the difference between honey bees and bumble bees?
Honey bees are smaller insects that build their nests above ground, produce excess honey, and can usually only sting once before dying. Bumble bees are bigger and fuzzier, nest on the ground, produce small amounts of honey and can sting multiple times.
The honey bee and bumblebee are both excellent at collecting pollen and nectar. But these insects are easy to tell apart as bumble bees are much fatter and hairier.
Honey bees are smaller and slimmer than bumble bees, measuring 0.6″ (1.5cm) in length. They are often colored golden yellow with brown bands.
The honey bee also has less hair, making it easier to mistake for a wasp. They have minimal hair, with bodies easily distinguished from their heads. A honey bee has more translucent wings and a more pointed abdomen tip.
A bumble bee measures 0.6-1″ (1.5-2.5cm) in length and is larger and more robust than a honey bee. They are striped yellow, orange, and black, with a more rounded abdomen. A thick fuzzy coat makes it tricky to see that their head and thorax are separate.
2. Social interaction
Honey bees are a tight-knit team communicating constantly with one another. They have designated roles, working in teams to forage, build honeycomb, nurse larvae, keep the hive cool, and much more. They use their antennae, release pheromones, and even dance to let other hive members know what’s happening.
Bumble bees are also social creatures that live in a nest but are much more independent. Their colony doesn’t work in unison to the same extent as honey bees. As the colder months end, the queen will emerge and leave the hive independently to start a new one.
3. Nesting habits
Most bumble bee species build nests underground, seeking out old burrows, house foundations, or even piles of rubble. They’ll search for stems, dry grass, and any suitable plant material to construct their new home. The queen will make several wax cells inside the nest, used for laying eggs and developing brood. The nest is abandoned each year as the bumbles head to a new hibernation location.
Honey bees mostly nest above ground in safe, sheltered locations. They often build hives in the hollows of trees, but they’re also happy with man-made hives. They construct their new homes with beeswax, building extensive honeycomb sections for raising brood and storing food supplies.
4. Honey production
Honey bees, as the name suggests, produce a lot of honey. They store it in wax cells to get them through winter. When the conditions are right, a colony of honey bees will produce surplus honey, allowing beekeepers to harvest it.
Bumble bees aren’t domesticated because they don’t produce excess honey. Instead, they make small amounts for the hive to live off during the warmer months. As winter arrives, they hibernate, so there is no need for excess honey supplies.
5. Hive population
A honey bee nest will increase rapidly if food sources and space allow. It can quickly reach a population of 20,000-80,000. As the colony outgrows its home, half the hive will swarm in search of a new home with more room to expand.
Bumble bees keep their numbers limited to a few hundred at most. The colony starts with one lone queen who builds the home independently before laying.
6. Noise output
A single honey bee makes a gentle buzz. The larger the bee, the slower its wings flap, resulting in a lower frequency buzz.
Bumble bees make a much louder buzzing sound which is especially noticeable when they buzz-pollinate. This technique involves vibrating wing muscles and thorax during pollen collection. Vibration helps shake off the pollen more effectively, producing a louder buzz.
Honey bees use dance to communicate information, like the location of a rich nectar source. Scout bees dance to let others know they’ve found a good site for a new hive. They also use chemical signals and wing vibrations to get messages out.
Bumble bees aren’t dancers, using pheromones and wing vibrations to convey information.
Both types of bees are excellent pollinators and are relied on heavily by farmers and gardeners worldwide. They spend their days collecting pollen and nectar while pollinating plants as they move around.
Honey bees aren’t as efficient as bumble bees at doing their job. They will flit from one food source to the next, communicating with each other to jump to the best available pollen supply.
Bumble bees are stayers. They’ll remain in one area, thoroughly seeking out every bit of food available. The bumble is considered a more efficient pollinator than the honey bee.
9. Longevity of queen
A queen honey bee resides in her hive all year and may live for over three years. Once she stops producing fertilized eggs, fellow worker bees will rear a replacement queen and kill the unproductive one.
A queen bumble bee will only live for one year – born in the fall, then hibernating through winter. She emerges to create a new colony in spring before dying in fall.
Tip: Be sure to also read our article on the the development stages of a honey bee.
Bumble and honey bees are mostly docile insects that spend their time collecting food and building colonies. They don’t aggressively protect their hive but won’t hesitate to sting predators if provoked.
Keep in mind that some races of honey bee, like Africanized bees, are highly aggressive and won’t hesitate to sting intruders.
Honey bees are a lot more domesticated than bumble bees. Over the years, honey bees have undergone genetic modification to enhance honey production and fight parasites like varroa mites. Researchers have also evolved honey bees into an insect with a more even temperament. A colony of honey bees will tolerate your intrusion better than bumble bees.
12. Ability to sting
Honey bees have a barb in their stinger, meaning they usually only sting once and then die. They may repeatedly sting smaller insects.
Bumble bees can sting over and over if they choose. However, humans are more likely to die from a honey bee sting as they live in greater numbers.
13. Winter habits
When winter arrives, honey bees huddle in one group to keep warm. They take turns on the outside, which is much colder. Thanks to honey reserves, the bees will do little but sleep and eat during winter.
Bumble bees prefer not to collect in a clump and keep each other warm during winter. Instead, they eat as much as possible in the fall to increase their fat supplies, then hibernate in a safe place.
Commonly asked questions
Are bumble bees as important as honey bees for pollination?
Both bee varieties are essential for pollinating crops. While bumble bees are more thorough, efficient pollinators, honey bees are more important for agriculture. Their numbers can be managed and colonies can be moved in large numbers to different areas as required.
Are bumble bees more aggressive than honey bees?
Although both bee varieties are relatively docile, a bumble bee is likelier to sting than a honey bee, as it won’t die from defending itself. Honey bee aggression varies significantly by race. Some honey bee breeds, such as Africanized, are much more aggressive than bumble bees.
Comparison table: Honey bee vs. bumble bee
|Honey Bee||Bumble Bee|
|Appearance||0.6” long, slender, hairless, golden yellow with brown bands||0.6-1” long, fat and fluffy with yellow and black stripes|
|Social Interaction||Highly social and interactive with specific roles||Live together in a nest but are less social and communicative|
|Nesting Habits||Above ground, wild or in man-made hives||Undomesticated, below or on the ground|
|Honey Production||High volume, often in excess of colony needs||Low volume, just enough for the nest to live on|
|Hive Population||Can reach 20,000-80,000||May contain up to 400|
|Noise Output||A single bee makes a low volume buzz||Louder than a honey bee, especially when buzz-pollinating|
|Communication||Dances, pheromones, or beating wings||Pheromones or beating wings but no dancing|
|Pollination||Effective in large numbers but often jump around locations||Stick to one area, thoroughly collecting from each flower, but can’t be transported to assist commercial pollination|
|Longevity of Queen||Around 3 years||One year|
|Aggressiveness||Non-aggressive unless provoked||Non-aggressive unless provoked|
|Domestication||Live in domesticated or wild environments||Non-domesticated|
|Ability to Sting||Usually, only sting once then die||Can sting multiple times|
|Winter Habits||Sleep and live off honey reserves||Hibernates until spring|
Responses in honeybee and bumblebee activity to changes in weather conditions
Karbassioon, A., Yearlsey, J., Dirilgen, T. et al. Responses in honeybee and bumblebee activity to changes in weather conditions. Oecologia 201, 689–701 (2023).
This article explores how changes in weather conditions, particularly in Ireland where the weather can be challenging, may affect the activity of honeybees and buff-tailed bumblebees, two important pollinators.
The study was conducted in seven apple orchards and observed how temperature, humidity, solar radiation, and wind affected the flight activity of both bee species. The results show that honeybees are more sensitive to changes in weather conditions than bumblebees and may be more impacted by future changes.
However, bumblebees were able to compensate for low honeybee activity in unfavorable weather conditions, suggesting that having a diverse group of pollinators may be important in managing crops that flower in the spring when weather is more variable, and in adapting to climate change.
Energetic efficiency of foraging mediates bee niche partitioning
Balfour, N. J., Shackleton, K., Arscott, N. A., Roll-Baldwin, K., Bracuti, A., Toselli, G., and Ratnieks, F. L. W.. 2021. Energetic efficiency of foraging mediates bee niche partitioning. Ecology102( 4):e03285.
The research explores niche partitioning between bumble and honey bees by comparing their foraging efficiency, measured as the ratio of flower visitation rate to body mass.
The study found that bumble bees visited flowers at a greater rate and realized greater energy benefits than honey bees, but were heavier and incurred greater energy costs.
The competition between honey bees and bumble bees had no consistent winner, highlighting the importance of plant diversity to the coexistence of bees species.
This article explains the differences between honey bees and bumble bees. They differ in appearance, social interaction, nesting habits, honey production, hive population, noise output, communication, pollination, and more.
While each bee is unique, both are hugely beneficial to our ecosystem. Research also shows that having a diverse range of pollinators is essential for effective pollination of our plants.