Bumble bees, those fuzzy industrious flying insects, are part of our culture in a number of ways: from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” to cute Halloween costumes, waving antennae and all. Stuffed toy bumble bees are ubiquitous in every nursery and most children libraries seem to carry at least one book about bumblebees. Songs and fairy tales involving bumblebees abound.
Bumble bees are plump and furry insects, usually striped black and yellow or black and white and yellow. Some even have some orange to brighten things up a little more.
They have two large eyes and, if you look very carefully, you will see three smaller eyes at the top of the head, between the large ones. The mouth has jaws which the females use for some tasks such as kneading wax and building little pots that they use to store pollen and nectar.
Insects have three pairs of legs and bumblebees are no exception. The back legs of the females are very peculiar, with a broader, flattened section surrounded by stiff hairs forming a sort of basket; as we will see later on, that is exactly how bumble bees use them. The wings are transparent, crossed by thin dark veins. There are four wings, two on each side of the thorax; but most of the time the back and front wing are joined by tiny hooks along the edges and look and act as one. Wings are a lot stronger than they appear and can carry the busy animal for several miles a day in its constant search for nectar and pollen; however, after several weeks of constant use they begin to fray along the far edge. Look for bumblebees on flowers and after a while you will be able to tell the ones that are very young and look spanking new from the older, worn out ones. In early spring most of them are young and the opposite is true near the end of the season.
We must be careful when we talk about bumble bees; at first sight we may think that they are all the same. We may even make the mistake of assuming that the larger, glossier and blacker carpenter bees are also bumble bees. As we’ll see later they are not and they have a very different life style.
There are about fifty species of bumble bees in North America; it would be nice to tell them apart at a glance but in many cases the differences are very subtle and we need help from the experts. They will tell us that it can be very difficult and that they may need to examine the specimen carefully under the microscope before making a diagnosis. So we won’t worry too much about identifying the species all the time.