Honey Bee Vs Bumble Bee – 13 Differences Explained

A honey bee and bumble bee, each on a flower

Honey bees and bumble bees are two easily recognizable garden insects. But how do they compare? This guide explores their similarities and differences, helping you understand 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, make small amounts of honey and can sting multiple times.

1. Appearance

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.

Side on profile shots of the honey bee and bumble bee, with white background

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.

Honey bees use their antennae, release pheromones, and even dance to let other hive members know what’s happening.

Bumble bees are social creatures living 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 suitable plant material to construct their new home.

The queen constructs several wax cells inside the nest for laying eggs and developing brood. The nest is abandoned each year as its inhabitants head to a new hibernation location.

Honey bees mostly nest above ground in safe, sheltered locations. They seek out tree hollows, but man-made hives also meet their requirements.

Honey bees construct their new homes with beeswax. They build 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. During winter hibernation excess honey isn’t needed.

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.

Close up of many bees on honeycomb
Honey bee colonies can grow to 80,000!

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.

7. Communication

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.

8. Pollination

Both bee varieties are excellent pollinators, 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 at doing their job as bumble bees. 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.

Close up of a bumble bee collecting pollen
Bumble bees are super-efficient at collecting pollen.

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.

10. Aggressiveness

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.

Remember that some honey bee races, like Africanized bees, are highly aggressive and won’t hesitate to sting intruders.

11. Domestication

Honey bees are a lot more domesticated than bumble bees. Over the years, they have undergone genetic modification to enhance honey production and fight parasites like varroa mites.

Researchers have also evolved honey bees into insects with a more even temperament. Honey bees will tolerate your intrusion better than bumble bees.

Honey bees can live in domesticated hives, unlike 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

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.

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 BeeBumble Bee
Appearance0.6” long, slender, hairless, golden yellow with brown bands  0.6-1” long, fat and fluffy with yellow and black stripes
Social InteractionHighly social and interactive with specific rolesLive together in a nest but are less social and communicative
Nesting HabitsAbove ground, wild or in man-made hivesUndomesticated, below or on the ground
Honey ProductionHigh volume, often in excess of colony needsLow volume, just enough for the nest to live on
Hive PopulationCan reach 20,000-80,000May contain up to 400
Noise OutputA single bee makes a low volume buzzLouder than a honey bee, especially when buzz-pollinating
CommunicationDances, pheromones, or beating wingsPheromones or beating wings but no dancing
PollinationEffective in large numbers but often jump around locationsStick to one area, thoroughly collecting from each flower, but can’t be transported to assist commercial pollination
Longevity of QueenAround 3 yearsOne year
AggressivenessNon-aggressive unless provokedNon-aggressive unless provoked
DomesticationLive in domesticated or wild environmentsNon-domesticated
Ability to StingUsually, only sting once then dieCan sting multiple times
Winter HabitsSleep and live off honey reservesHibernates until spring

Interesting research

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.

Read the research here>

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.

Read the research here>

Summing up

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.

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