Bumblebees vs. Honeybees: Whats the difference?

Through my work with ABC Bees- Apiaries and Bees for Communities and our urban beekeeping projects, I receive calls throughout the summer about bee nests being overturned or found under peoples decks. These individuals are calling me afraid that they may have killed the bees by accident or worse, that the bees are going to aggressively attack. Each time I have responded to the call, I calmly engage and educate the caller like a 911 operator and 99% of the time find out that  it has been a Bumblebee nest overturned. Many of these callers think that the hive dug up was a honeybee nest, and with the media coverage of CCD and the disappearing bee, they call me to seek advice on how to act.  So, here is some information to help you differentiate between pollinator groups and help you in considering your opportunities of action. Knowing more about bee behaviours will help you decide the best way to interact with them.

Bumble Bees

  •  Thick and furry body. Fat all around with yellow, orange, and or black colouring.
  •  Thick wings visible when landed.
  •  Various sizes from 2-5cm.
  •  Live in poorly drained soils. Small nests os 5-50 members.
  • Queens are the only bee to overwinter, they hibernate at the nesting site.
  • Bumble bees can sting multiple times, but only the females can sting.
  • Bumble bees do not produce a honey surplus like honeybees.
  • They are native to Canada, with over 25 species specializing on the Rocky Mountain Regions.

Honey Bees

  • Small body, fuzzy torso, sleek abdomen, and thin wings.
  • 2.5cm in length
  • Colonies of 1000-25000.
  • Can sting only once, but the males cannot sting
  • Produce a honey comb and honey surplus
  • Large portion of the colony overwinters with the queen
  • Honeybees are not native to Canada, brought over by Europeans during settlement.

Being able to differentiate between the two is essential for understanding the behaviour each. Bumble bees are not aggressive and will only sting when the hive is threatened. Honey bees are calm and unaggressive, but the quantity of bees can make the home-owner anxious and usually irrational in actions, disturbing the bees and making them feel threatened. The removal of a honey bee hive can be challenging and may take a professional, call your local Beekeepers Association, while bumble bee nests should be left undisturbed until the winter months because they too are in danger! Go to www.xerces.org to learn more about the endangered bumble bees.

Sharing your yard with any kind of pollinator is an excellent sign of your community health and prosperity. Be sure to respect the bees, and not to fear them. They are not after your meals, they are eaters of pollen and nectar and will leave you alone if you leave them be.

47 Comments
  • HParis
    Posted at 14:09h, 12 July Reply

    I just saved a “dead” bumblebee that was on my floor by offering it honey on a spoon. It’s little proboscis snaked out, started drinking, and I put a glass over it and the spoon till it finished and started buzzing around, then I released it outside. I only knew to do this because I just went on a honey bee tour last week!

    • bees4communities
      Posted at 14:39h, 07 August Reply

      The bees are lucky to hevae someone like you take a moment and care for the little bee, offer it a helping hand. Nature doesnt have to be red in tooth and claw, sometimes it just takes a little helping hand.

    • Keith
      Posted at 16:45h, 24 August Reply

      Well done and thank you.

    • Jackie
      Posted at 07:33h, 06 July Reply

      That’s awesome saving a little bee but I read that you should only give them sugar because honey is unique to each colony and if you give it foreign honey it will be rejected by its colony, sorry 🙁

  • Jackie
    Posted at 19:41h, 01 August Reply

    Wow–I did something similar recently: found a disoriented bumblebee that I think bounced off a car. Held it up on my finger to a blue harebell-type wildflower on a quiet street: its tongue came out aimed right at the flower’s centre, then it climbed into the flower and began to drink happily!

    • bees4communities
      Posted at 14:37h, 07 August Reply

      thats awesome! Arent bees just wonderful!

      • Keith
        Posted at 16:45h, 24 August Reply

        That was smart thinking.

      • debbie
        Posted at 22:27h, 29 August Reply

        fantastic! I love bumble bees and they are fun to watch.

  • Cheryl Layton
    Posted at 23:35h, 01 September Reply

    Thank you so very much for this wonderful info. I am happy to do my small part to protect our bee population. These are bumblebees and we have decided to share our space with them.

    Thank you for a chance to educate myself on on of my little neighbors.

  • Bumble bees in TheGardenLady's garden | The Garden Lady
    Posted at 15:06h, 17 September Reply

    […] But I love to look for honey bees. My prayer is that scientists will solve the problem of the sick honey bees and that my garden, that never uses chemicals, will play a small part in helping honey bee health. Honey bees pollinate a lot of the food or crop plants AND they give us honey. If you can’t tell the difference between bumble bees and honey bees, check out this Canadian website. […]

  • DeeDee
    Posted at 21:44h, 25 March Reply

    I was stung on the ass by a fierce flying yellow jacket. He was a crazed, lunatic insect, that wouldn’t leave me alone. I ran and tried to hide, but he found me. When I turned my back to him…ZAP…he got me in the butt. I had just come out of the creek (I was bathing), so I didn’t have any clothes on. It swelled up pretty big and hurt like hell.

    • Del
      Posted at 00:48h, 17 July Reply

      Of course yellow jackets behave differently from bees.

    • Keith
      Posted at 16:47h, 24 August Reply

      Oh dear…. whacked in the astro-bar!

  • The Buzz About Bees: A Tumblehome Quiz | Tumblehome Talks
    Posted at 17:35h, 04 June Reply

    […] 6. A. Honey bees have barbed stingers that allow them to sting only once (then they die by pulling their insides out), while bumble bees can sting repeatedly. Honey bees, however, are more easily provoked and likely to sting than bumble bees. Only the female (worker) honey bees have stingers, while the male (drone) honey bees have none. […]

  • The Buzz About Bees: A Tumblehome Quiz | Tumblehome Learning - Science & Engineering Books For Kids & MoreTumblehome Learning – Science & Engineering Books For Kids & More
    Posted at 13:09h, 21 June Reply

    […] 6. A. Honey bees have barbed stingers that allow them to sting only once (then they die by pulling their insides out), while bumble bees can sting repeatedly. Honey bees, however, are more easily provoked and likely to sting than bumble bees. Only the female (worker) honey bees have stingers, while the male (drone) honey bees have none. […]

  • DELORES STOTZ
    Posted at 17:28h, 10 July Reply

    DELORES
    JULY 10/13
    THANK YOU FOR THE IMFORMATION. I THINK I HAVE BUMBLEBEES. I’LL LEAVE THEM THERE TILL WINTER , THEN I WILL REMOVE THE NEST. THANK YOU AGAIN FOR YOUR HELP.

  • Alex
    Posted at 18:44h, 12 July Reply

    Just wondered if the presence of bumblebees will keep honeybees away. I planted some bee balm in my backyard. A week ago the major bees were honeybees (no bumblebees). Now its bumblebees (no honeybees).

    • bees4communities
      Posted at 19:31h, 18 July Reply

      Its because of what is in ‘flow’ in your area. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey_flow
      Honeybees are polyamorous monogamists, this means that when a flow is on, they are after only that 1 nectar source. I dont think there is competition, there is just a change of heart with the honeybees, its all about bang for their buck, so if sweet clover is on, which it is here in Alberta and the prairie provinces and states, then they will go for that over the bee balm. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_clover

  • Alex
    Posted at 18:52h, 12 July Reply

    I wondered too if time of day had something to do with it. Usually I saw the honeybees in the late afternoon and evening. The bumblebees I saw today were at midday.

  • Alex
    Posted at 00:27h, 14 July Reply

    I just went to check on the bee balm again. It’s about 6PM. All bumblebees. No honeybees, no butterflies. I’m not sure I like the way this is turning out. I’d like my butterflies back, please. And the honeybees.

  • Kathleen
    Posted at 02:27h, 18 July Reply

    I found this to be very educational. I was not aware that a bumble bee and a honey bee were two different bee types. Good to know! I just learned that I have a nest of bumble bees under my shed. I wanted them gone but not killed. Because of this information I will just leave them alone. I shan’t bother them and I know they won’t bother me. Thank you for this valuable info.

    • bees4communities
      Posted at 19:28h, 18 July Reply

      Oh, that makes us so happy! Thank you for sharing your change of heart. Bumblebees need love too!

  • Janet Geren
    Posted at 08:39h, 27 July Reply

    I found a bumblebee in a bucket of water and took him out and put him on a leaf to dry out but the ants started to go after him. So I brought him inside. I didn’t know what to do but maybe it was the wrong thing, Anyway, I put a little sugar water on a qtip and he drank, then I used a very small dropper that I use for bach rescue and he drank. He was almost dead and overnight he came to and got better and better. I fed him the next morning and then released him and he was healthy and flying perfectly! I video taped the release. I always watch out for the little critters too, have rescued butterflies, wasps, honey bees, hummingbirds and any critter that needs help, I want to be there for all of God’s critters, because every one is here for a reason and all are vital to this world. Great page, thanks <3

  • Arthur Nord Peterson
    Posted at 16:28h, 10 August Reply

    I have thistles in the back yard- TEN feet high covered in blooms. I have bumble bees, honey bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, humming birds, wild canaries, cardinals, and bluejays, and crows. I talk to all of them, make sure they have water, pet the bumble bees, save the wasps and hornets when they get stuck in the water, and don’t bother them . I’ve had wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets crawl on the underside of my cap bill while I’m wearing it. I find they are as curious about us as I am about them. They are my friends and I respect them. I won’t kill any of them even if they sting, which doesn’t happen very often. Sign me Dirt in Moon.

  • Alexa
    Posted at 20:17h, 26 August Reply

    What does a honeycomb & honey surplus mean?

  • wendy reuter
    Posted at 00:38h, 16 September Reply

    i am a honeybee keeper. Thank you for explaining the difference between a. honey bee and a bumble bee. The story about rescuing the bumble bee from the bucket of water and the person who found the bumble bee on her floor was awsome! No matter how small a creature, each one is here for a purpose and deserves a chance to live..Every act of kindness in some small way makes a difference.

  • Samantha
    Posted at 02:31h, 16 December Reply

    Who wrote this article?

  • Forkin' Foodie
    Posted at 16:58h, 18 January Reply

    You’re article was very informative!! I did not know that bumblebees were not honey bees. I think there is a lot of naivety out there, and with the dangers that our bee populations have to live with, more information like yours is NECESSARY so everyone understands and can give a helping hand/act appropriately!

    Have you ever been interviewed on the CBC or something like that?

  • Richard Allan Inman
    Posted at 20:01h, 25 January Reply

    I was clearing the overgrown fencerows just outside my property, and back by my cesspool, I luckily noticed some friendly adorable huge fuzzy black bumblebees flying around, nothing unusual, so I stopped to watch them for a while. Then I noticed a few smaller ones were the tan or golden color like honeybees but much bigger…. This really got my attention, so I got a chair and some homemade mango wine and kicked back to observe them…. It wasn’t very long before they showed me where their hive was. It is a cut down trash tree stump they have made into quite a nice condo…. and I was getting very close to clearing that area next. Now I have decided to work around them, preserving their hive, because they are actually cool to watch. I will be moving my aquaponics hot tub tank over closer to them to cover my cesspool with some additional timber framing to support it, then I will be planting a massive area of a couple different kinds of sweet clover… I have a lot of downed OHIA tree which works great to build border fencing, which I will use to create my Bumble Bee Sanctuary…. I am also beginning my education into honey bees, hives, honey extraction, open feeding, honey bee wax making and uses…. Goodbye boring times!!!! I bet once I really draw in lots of bees, My citrus, papaya, and avocado trees will really go off, not even mentioning my aquaponics gardens….

  • Author Unknown
    Posted at 06:30h, 20 February Reply

    I once saw a bee
    in a group of three.

    I slapped my knee,
    said ‘can it be’?

    Then, without warning, like a leopard snoring,
    an apple fell out of the tree.

    So, I took my old kettle,
    and posed a riddle…

    Can a honeybee sing,
    while it pees, if no one is around to hear it?

    – Author unknown (to most people)

  • El BeeDerino
    Posted at 14:15h, 20 February Reply

    I like bees very much, bee good for flower, bee make good juice, no kill bee my brothers, unite!

  • DK
    Posted at 18:43h, 20 February Reply

    Thank for the educational article. I was not sure how honeybees and bumble bees weer different but now I know, thanks to you!

  • oldawg
    Posted at 18:53h, 22 February Reply

    Great article, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • BOB
    Posted at 02:13h, 28 February Reply

    i loved this wonderful article

  • Holly Lomax
    Posted at 14:45h, 24 April Reply

    I once found a bee in a puddle it couldn’t move so i took it out and layed it on my table in the sun to dry, it eventually did and flew away 🙂 xxx

    • lillylangtree1Janet
      Posted at 02:18h, 11 July Reply

      Hi Holly, How odd that you write this today. I rescued a bee today from drowning! I also found a way to prevent them from drowning in the water I leave out for the birds. I lay part of my comfrey plant in the water so they can jump on a leaf if they need to and its working!~ They actually love it and I just went outside and found a couple of bees and a wasp drinking water, but they are able to jump on and fly off the leaves !!!

    • Arthur Peterson
      Posted at 01:41h, 12 July Reply

      Bees, bumble bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets are special. They can get mired in water and when you rescue them so they survive, they REMEMBER!! You’ve gained a friend who won’t hurt you because of your actions. You might be the one to open a dialog; I think conversation with them will be phenomenal, or “beenominal”. Blessed bee!!

  • thefuneralbizz
    Posted at 21:03h, 02 July Reply

    I have a question and i hope you can help me.. Over the last 2-3 weeks I have noticed a couple of bumblebees flying near my house where there is a small opening in the siding seam, which I did not know existed until I saw the bumblebees there. There is also a crack, a large crack, on the foundation of my home right where the opening in siding is.. I only saw one bumblebee actually fly into the opening, but soon flew right back out. Now everyday they are there flying around my house in same area. I also saw a smaller bee, which i assume is a honey bee flying around same area. Is it common for them to seek out the same area or share? I do not believe any bees have made a nest there…yet. I also really need to patch up that spot because I can feel the cool air from our house leaking out from the crack. I want to know how to get them away from that area so i can repair my home, but not hurt them. Please, any advice is more than appreciated!!

  • K
    Posted at 16:25h, 14 July Reply

    Thank you for this awesome article. We just moved into a new house and realized we have some sort of a bee nest under our low deck. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to kill whatever was there because whatever it was (and I now know it is a bumblebees and their nest) was pollinating all the delicious to come raspberries in our new yard. Thanks to your article I will now relax and not worry that the bees will kill me. 🙂 Thank you!

  • Tammy
    Posted at 22:44h, 21 July Reply

    fuzzy bumblebees in my ipinion, are adorable

  • Sylvia shaw
    Posted at 13:44h, 14 August Reply

    I live in north East England (uk)and have a large buddlia bush and it’s covered with bumble bees I was always frightened of bees but since the bush has flowered I stand and watch them

    • Arthur Peterson
      Posted at 01:21h, 06 January Reply

      Both bumble bees and honey bees, plus wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets, have a natural curiosity about humans. All are very friendly if you meet them half way. I collect water from my roof and occasionally one of them will get mired in the water. I cup my hand under them, lift them out, put them on the step and wait while they drain. When drained, they will try their wings and then fly to their nest. They remember your kindness and will treat you with equal kindness. They fly very close or will land on your face, or arms and hands. The trick is to remain calm and DO NOT GET THE ADRENALIN FLOWING. The smell of adrenalin makes them mad and you may get stung. Second trick is to remain calm even if you do get stung. Talk to them, even apologizing, and no violent rages in retaliation. Just accept the sting(s) and be cool with them. They will treat you as an honorable friend into the future. Remember that in the fall a lot will die with the freezes and it’s very depressing to lose so many friends. Later, I’ll tell you about playing with them and having them play on me. NO, I’M NOT NUTS, I’m at peace with another species. I have received a blessing from God and it’s very special to me.

  • Tina
    Posted at 18:28h, 07 September Reply

    We recently moved into a new house. There are a lot of bumblebees around the front of the house. They seem to have a nest under the step that leads to the front door. I don’t like to kill insects or animals. I worry about someone coming to the front door or neighborhood children playing outside. There are a LOT of them always flying around the front window. At times it sounds like a constant hum. They’re also bumping into the front windows. Anything I can do?

  • Eddie
    Posted at 01:31h, 08 April Reply

    Random question, but I have a queen bee (bumble bee) that’s been pestering me for the past 2-3 years every summer its banging at my window or manages to get in my house and the other day it did an flew straight at me. I haven’t provoked or done anything to annoy it but it presissts on banging on the window I have a phobia of bees and wasps what do I do because this thing has an obsession with me and won’t go away I don’t want to anger it but would like it stop coming in my house

  • Clifford Thompson
    Posted at 10:44h, 04 May Reply

    I have a huge number of bumblebees and good number of flowers. I was digging in my yard so that I can extend my garden. I think I buried a hive. Is there a way where I can purchase a hive so that I can replace the original.

  • Maria
    Posted at 16:25h, 19 August Reply

    Hi there, thank you for this very interesting and useful information! I came across this website as I was searching the bee keeping in alberta( it’s something that I’m interested and plan on doing later in the future once we buy our own house hopefull somewhere outside of Calgary). Before I never really took much interest in declining bee population, until this year I had my vegetable garden in the back yard and noticed that my pumpkins, melons and zukies fail to produce anthing, flowers bloom but then they die, so with help of internet I learned that this is because they’r not being pollinated (and I don’t see any bees flying around). So now I’m forced to hand pollinate everything 🙁 I really wish there were more bees around. But I did plant few flowers in the front of the house, and I see one (or maybe it’s a different one each time) come to them every day.

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