The Boone County Buzz: Bumble Bees and Why You Should Like Them

Kathy Doisy

Kathy Doisy

I like bumble bees. This despite a traumatic incident as a small child when I was stung by one (I can still see her coming at me!).  Anyway, I’ve gotten over that, and I do everything I can to encourage them in my gardens, which are filled with them on sunny days. Why do I like them? Well, for starters, they are beautiful, industrious insects that benefit my plants. They also are an important part of our ecosystem and deserve to be here.

We have ten recognized species of bumble bees in Missouri and all of them are important pollinators. However, only four of these species occur commonly: the Common Eastern, Two-spotted, Brown-belted and Half-black bumble bees. Great names, aren’t they?

Bumble bees are great generalist pollinators, meaning that each species may feed on the nectar of several vegetable, fruit or flower crops while collecting and feeding the pollen to their larvae. They are “eusocial” like honey bees, meaning they have different “castes” that perform different tasks for the benefit of the colony. However, they differ from honey bees in that the colonies are much smaller, occur in the ground and only last one year. Newly inseminated queens overwinter before starting a new colony in the spring.

Every year, someone tells me about how a bumble bee was acting territorial with them or other bumble bees. It was hovering about head height and challenging anything that came near. That’s why I decided to write this article. A bee like that isn’t a bumble bee!

Eastern Carpenter bee

Figure 1: Eastern Carpenter bee. Note the shiny, hairless abdomen.

bumble bee

Figure 2: Bumble bee.

If you look closely at a bee acting territorial, you’ll see that it’s abdomen is shiny and hairless (Figure 1), unlike the abdomens of bumble bees (Figure 2). With proper training you would also see that it is a male bee, and unable to sting you despite his bravado. The bee I’m describing is the Eastern Carpenter bee.

To be honest, I set out to show you the difference because I was trained 40 years ago to dislike this species because it damages wood. However, in doing some background reading I’ve come to realize that feelings towards this bee have changed. The Eastern Carpenter bee does damage wood, including unpainted fresh lumber of the pine and cedar varieties. They do this when the female tunnels into the wood so that she can lay her eggs. This species is also capable of being a nectar robber, meaning that it sometimes rips open the corollas of tubular flowers to get at the nectar while failing to pollinate them. However, despite these negatives, researchers now believe that they still do a lot of beneficial pollinating, albeit not at the level of honey bees or bumble bees. So, now it’s up to you to decide what to do about them. When I see them in my garden, I will let them be, but I’ll still net and dispatch any females trying to damage my potting shed.

More information on bumble bees and bees in general: