Many people are familiar with honey bees and their elaborate communication dances, but bumble bees are a little more obscure. You may be wondering: how do bumble bees communicate? Do they dance like honey bees, or do they have other methods of communication? Keep reading as we answer these questions and more.
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How Is a Bumble Bee Hive Organized?
Bumble bees are larger than honey bees, and they don’t produce as much honey. Their colonies are similar in structure to honey bee colonies, but they are much smaller.
Whereas honey bees may have 50,000 individuals in a single colony, bumble bee colonies are typically made up of no more than a few hundred. They typically build in-ground clay structures in which to live.
Bumble bee colonies are composed of three groups of bees: queens, female workers, and male drones.
A single, fertile queen is the head of the colony for a season. New, virgin queens are born and raised in the fall, shortly before the existing queen dies along with the rest of the workers and drones.
Female workers cannot reproduce. The larger of these bees forage for food, while the smaller ones remain in the colony, caring for young and keeping the hive clean.
Male drones have only one purpose: to mate with the virgin queens, fertilizing them so they can continue the life cycle and form their own hives the following summer.
How Do Bumble Bees Communicate?
Bumble bees produce honey, but not as much as honey bees do. Whereas honey bees produce enough to sustain their large colonies for months, bumble bees only produce enough for a few days at a time.
For this reason, they do not need an elaborate scheme to communicate the exact locations of good nectar sources to their sisters. However, there are times when communication is necessary.
When a bumble bee wants to let the rest of the colony know about a good nectar source, she will return to the hive and perform an “excited run” which involves spreading pheromones, or scents the body produces.
In this move, she will run through the hive, fanning her wings, distributing pheromones and the scent of the flower throughout the colony.
These scents appear to excite the other bees, prompting some of the workers to head out in search of the nectar source. There is also some thought that the buzzing sounds produced while the bee fans its wings communicate specific information.
However, it appears bumble bees are unable to communicate exact locations of nectar sources. All their pheromones and buzzing really do is let the other bees know what type of flower to visit.
This is the most common form of bumble bee communication. They communicate with each other by spreading scents, or pheromones, and possibly to a lesser extent by sound.
Interestingly, a bumble bee’s pheromones can communicate more than just food source information.
A queen bee will spread “brood recognition” pheromones over her eggs for identification purposes, and she will release other pheromones that suppress reproductive abilities in the female workers. This ensures that only the queen is sexually mature and able to mate.
Do Bumble Bees Communicate Differently Than Honey Bees?
If you’ve ever seen a honey bee perform a “waggle dance”, then you can probably guess that honey bees communicate much differently than bumble bees do.
If you haven’t seen a waggle dance before, check out the video below to familiarize yourself:
As mentioned, honey bee colonies are larger than bumble bee colonies, and they produce much more honey. This leads to a much greater need for good nectar sources, which in turn may necessitate flying great distances to find these sources.
Once a honey bee has discovered a good source, her job is to communicate its exact location to other members of her colony.
She does this by shaking her body back and forth and moving in a figure-eight pattern. Slight variations in the pattern can tell other workers the direction and distance of the food source.
Honey bees can also transfer nectar sources to their sisters, allowing them to sample the nectar and taste its quality for themselves.
These behaviors signify a great amount of intelligence and organization on the part of honey bee workers. Since they can send other workers to the exact location of good nectar sources, they can ensure that more of the nectar is brought back to the hive and converted to honey.
Again, bumble bees do not perform these same behaviors. Their own communication techniques are not as coordinated or well-organized, but that is not because they are less intelligent; they simply don’t have the same need as honey bees.
Because their colonies are smaller and they don’t produce as much honey, bumble bees generally don’t have to search as far for nectar sources.
Though they try to let the rest of the colony know when they have found a good source of food, this serves as more of a generalized encouragement to go out and forage than a specific instruction for reaching a specific flower.
Bumble bees communicate primarily by distributing pheromones, or chemical scents, as well as the smell of the flowers they’ve been visiting. They also communicate by running through the hive and fanning their wings, though these movements aren’t as precise as the honey bee’s waggle dance.