The honey bee and bumble bee are two of the most recognizable insects in the garden. Bumble bees are the fat and hairy-looking ones that look cute enough to hug, but what other similarities and differences do they have? This guide compares the honey bee vs. bumble bee so that you know what sets them apart.
How do honey bees and bumble bees differ?
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, 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 they’re easy to tell apart as bumble bees are a lot fatter and hairier.
Honey bees are smaller and slenderer than bumble bees, measuring 0.6” (1.5cm). They are often colored golden yellow with brown bands.
The honey bee also has less hair which makes it easier to mistake it for a wasp. As they have very little hair, their bodies can easily be 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 than a honey bee. They are stiped yellow, orange and black, with lots of hair. They have a rounded abdomen, large girth, and are robust insects. With so much hair, it is difficult to see that their head is separate from their thorax.
2. Social interaction
Honey bees are a tight-knit team that communicates constantly with one another. They each have roles and work together 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 going on.
Bumble bees are also social creatures that live in a nest, but they’re a lot more independent. Their colony doesn’t work in unison to the same extent that honey bees do. As the colder months end, the queen will emerge and leave the hive to start a new one on her own.
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 with. Once a basic nest has been created, the queen will make several wax cells and lay them out for laying eggs and developing brood. Each year, the nest is abandoned as the bumbles head to a new spot to hibernate.
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 sections of honeycomb 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 bee keepers 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 grows rapidly and can reach a population of 20,000-80,000 if space and food sources allow. As the colony becomes a heaving mass of excess, half the hive may swarm in search of a new home with more space.
Bumble bees don’t experience the same overcrowding issues, preferring to keep their numbers limited to a few hundred at most. The colony starts with one lone queen who builds the home on her own and starts 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. This is especially noticeable when they buzz-pollinate. This is where they vibrate their wing muscles and thorax during pollen collection. The vibration helps shake off the pollen more effectively and results in a louder buzz.
Honey bees use dance to communicate information like where a rich nectar source is located. Scout bees will dance to let others know they’ve found a good location for a new hive. They also use chemical signals and wing vibrations to get their message out.
Bumble bees aren’t dancers, choosing to use pheromones and wing vibrations for communicating.
Both types of bees are excellent pollinators, revered by farmers and gardeners around the world. They are custom-built for collecting pollen, 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 on offer. For some crops, they are considered better pollinators.
9. Longevity of queen
A queen honey bee resides in her hive all year and may live for over three years. If she stops producing fertilized eggs then her life will come to an abrupt end though, scorned by the hive.
A queen bumble bee will only live for one year. She is born in fall, then hibernates through winter. As spring arrives, she emerges to create a new colony before dying in fall.
Tip: Be sure to also read our article on the the development stages of a honey bee.
Bumble bee and honey bees are usually docile insects, focused on collecting food and building their colonies. They don’t aggressively protect their hive, but if provoked won’t hesitate to sting predators.
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 which means they can usually only sting a human once then die. They may be able to sting multiple times if they’re using it on smaller insects.
Bumble bees can sting over and over if they choose. However, death by honey bee is more likely due to the numbers involved.
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 extremely important 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 more likely to sting than a honey bee as it won’t die as a result of the process.
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|