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Bumble Bees

Lat. “Bombus“
genus of family “Honey Bees, Bumble Bees, and Allies“
1 genus, 1 subgenus, 4 species

Bumblebees get their name from the buzzing sound they make when they fly, and the word “bumble” means to hum or buzz. The genus Bombus, which comprises over 250 species, is the only extant genus in the bumblebee tribe Bombini. Bumblebees are larger and stouter-bodied than honeybees and have varied appearances with broad bands of color. They are found in temperate climates, often at higher latitudes and altitudes, and can regulate their body temperature. Bumblebees have predators such as badgers and birds, and they can be parasitized by mites and diseases.


Cuckoo Bumble Bees
Lat. “Psithyrus“
subgenus of genus “Bumble Bees“
1 subgenus
Garden Bumble Bee
Lat. “Bombus hortorum“
species of genus “Bumble Bees“
1 species
Shrill Carder-Bumble bee
Lat. “Bombus sylvarum“
species of genus “Bumble Bees“
1 species

Etymology and common names

The word “bumblebee” is a compound of “bumble” and “bee”—‘bumble’ meaning to hum, buzz, drone, or move ineptly or flounderingly. The generic name Bombus, assigned by Pierre André Latreille in 1802, is derived from the Latin word for a buzzing or humming sound, borrowed from Ancient Greek βόμβος (bómbos).According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term “bumblebee” was first recorded as having been used in the English language in the 1530 work Lesclarcissement by John Palsgrave, “I bomme, as a bombyll bee dothe.” However the OED also states that the term “humblebee” predates it, having first been used in 1450 in Fysshynge wyth Angle, “In Juyll the greshop & the humbylbee in the medow.” The latter term was used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1600) by William Shakespeare, “The honie-bags steale from the humble Bees.” Similar terms are used in other Germanic languages, such as the German Hummel (Old High German humbala), Dutch hommel or Swedish humla. An old provincial name, “dumbledor”, also denoted a buzzing insect such as a bumblebee or cockchafer, “dumble” probably imitating the sound of these insects, while “dor” meant “beetle”.In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin speculated about “humble-bees” and their interactions with other species: I have […] reason to believe that humble-bees are indispensable to the fertilisation of the heartsease (Viola tricolor), for other bees do not visit this flower. From experiments which I have tried, I have found that the visits of bees, if not indispensable, are at least highly beneficial to the fertilisation of our clovers; but humble-bees alone visit the common red clover (Trifolium pratense), as other bees cannot reach the nectar. However, “bumblebee” remained in use, for example in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) by Beatrix Potter, “Suddenly round a corner, she met Babbitty Bumble–“Zizz, Bizz, Bizzz!” said the bumble bee.” Since World War II “humblebee” has fallen into near-total disuse.


The bumblebee tribe Bombini is one of four groups of corbiculate bees (those with pollen baskets) in the Apidae, the others being the Apini (honey bees), Euglossini (orchid bees), and Meliponini (stingless bees). The corbiculate bees are a monophyletic group. Advanced eusocial behaviour appears to have evolved twice in the group, giving rise to controversy, now largely settled, as to the phylogenetic origins of the four tribes; it had been supposed that eusocial behaviour had evolved only once, requiring the Apini to be close to the Meliponini, which they do not resemble. It is now thought that the Apini (with advanced societies) and Euglossini are closely related, while the primitively eusocial Bombini are close to the Meliponini, which have somewhat more advanced eusocial behaviour. Sophie Cardinal and Bryan Danforth comment that “While remarkable, a hypothesis of dual origins of advanced eusociality is congruent with early studies on corbiculate morphology and social behavior.” Their analysis, combining molecular, morphological and behavioural data, gives the following cladogram: On this hypothesis, the molecular data suggest that the Bombini are 25 to 40 million years old, while the Meliponini (and thus the clade that includes the Bombini and Meliponini) are 81 to 96 million years old, about the same age as the corbiculate group.However, a more recent phylogeny using transcriptome data from 3,647 genes of ten corbiculate bee species supports the single origin of eusociality hypothesis in the corbiculate bees. They find that Bombini is in fact sister to Meliponini, corroborating that previous finding from Sophie Cardinal and Bryan Danforth (2011). However, Romiguier et al. (2015) shows that Bombini, Meliponini, and Apini form a monophyletic group, where Apini shares a most recent common ancestor with the Bombini and Meliponini clade, while Euglossini is most distantly related to all three, since it does not share the same most recent common ancestor as Bombini, Meliponini, and Apini. Thus, their analysis supports the single origin of eusociality hypothesis within the corbiculate bees, where eusociality evolved in the common ancestor of Bombini, Apini, and Meliponini. The fossil record for bees is limited, with around 14 species that might possibly be Bombini having been described by 2019. The only Bombus relatives in Bombini are the late Eocene Calyptapis florissantensis from the Florissant Formation, USA, and Oligobombus cuspidatus from the Bembridge Marls of the Isle of Wight. Two species of Bombus have been described from the Oligocene of Beşkonak, Bucak Turkey: Bombus (Mendacibombus) beskonakensis and Bombus (Paraelectrobombus) patriciae. Both species were originally placed in genera considered at the time of description as outside of Bombus, being initially named Oligoapis beskonakensis and Paraelectrobombus patriciae respectively, however reexaminiation of the fore-wings lead to both being considered as Bombus species In 2012 a fossil bumblebee from the Miocene was found in Germany’s Randeck Maar and classified as Bombus (Bombus) randeckensis. In 2014, another species, Bombus cerdanyensis, was described from Late Miocene lacustrine beds of La Cerdanya, Spain, but not initially placed into any subgenus, The species Bombus trophonius was described in October 2017 and placed in Bombus subgenus Cullumanobombus. A redescription of the Bombini fossil record by Dehon et al (2019) resulted in the synonymization of the genus Oligoapis with Bombus subgenus Mendacibombus, and the placement of genus Paraelectrobombus as Bombus subgenus Paraelectrobombus, rather than as a genus in Electrobombini. The subgenus Cullumanobombus was expanded to include not only Bombus trophonius but also Bombus randeckensis which was moved from subgenus Bombus and Bombus pristinus, first described by Unger (1867). Within the subgenus Melanobombus only Bombus cerdanyensis is present from the fossil record. An additional three species, “Bombus” luianus, “Bombus” anacolus and “Bombus” dilectus have been attributed to Bombus from the Middle Miocene Shanwang formation of China by Zhang, (1990) and Zhang et al (1994). Due to not being able to study Zhang’s type specimens, but only illustrations of the fossils, Dehon et al did not place the three species within any specific subgenera, and considered all three as “species inquirenda”, needing fuller re-examination. Two other species were not examined at all by Dehon et al, Bombus? crassipes of the Late Miocene Krottensee deposits in the Czech Republic, and Bombus proavus from the Middle Miocene Latah Formation, USA.


The genus Bombus, the only one extant genus in the tribe Bombini, comprises over 250 species; for an overview of the differences between bumblebees and other bees and wasps, see characteristics of common wasps and bees. The genus has been divided variously into up to 49 subgenera, a degree of complexity criticised by Williams (2008). The cuckoo bumblebees Psithyrus have sometimes been treated as a separate genus but are now considered to be part of Bombus, in one or more subgenera.Examples of Bombus species include Bombus pauloensis, Bombus dahlbomii, Bombus fervidus, Bombus lapidarius, Bombus ruderatus, and Bombus rupestris.

Subgenera of the genus Bombus

General description

Bumblebees vary in appearance, but are generally plump and densely furry. They are larger, broader and stouter-bodied than honeybees, and their abdomen tip is more rounded. Many species have broad bands of colour, the patterns helping to distinguish different species. Whereas honeybees have short tongues and therefore mainly pollinate open flowers, some bumblebee species have long tongues and collect nectar from flowers that are closed into a tube. Bumblebees have fewer stripes (or none), and usually have part of the body covered in black fur, while honeybees have many stripes including several grey stripes on the abdomen. Sizes are very variable even within species; the largest British species, B. terrestris, has queens up to 22 mm (0.9 in) long, males up to 16 mm (0.6 in) long, and workers between 11 and 17 mm (0.4–0.7 in) long. The largest bumblebee species in the world is B. dahlbomii of Chile, up to about 40 mm (1.6 in) long, and described as “flying mice” and “a monstrous fluffy ginger beast”.

Distribution and habitat

Bumblebees are typically found in temperate climates, and are often found at higher latitudes and altitudes than other bees, although a few lowland tropical species exist. A few species (B. polaris and B. alpinus) range into very cold climates where other bees might not be found; B. polaris occurs in northern Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic, along with another bumblebee B. hyperboreus, which parasitises its nest. This is the northernmost occurrence of any eusocial insect. One reason for their presence in cold places is that bumblebees can regulate their body temperature, via solar radiation, internal mechanisms of “shivering” (called heterothermy), and countercurrent exchange to retain heat. Other bees have similar physiology, but the mechanisms seem best developed and have been most studied in bumblebees. They adapt to higher elevations by extending their wing stroke amplitude. Bumblebees have a largely cosmopolitan distribution but are absent from Australia (apart from Tasmania where they have been introduced) and are found in Africa only north of the Sahara. More than a hundred years ago they were also introduced to New Zealand, where they play an important role as efficient pollinators.

Predators, parasites, and pathogens

Bumblebees, despite their ability to sting, are eaten by certain predators. Nests may be dug up by badgers and eaten whole, including any adults present. Adults are preyed upon by robber flies and beewolves in North America. In Europe, birds including bee-eaters and shrikes capture adult bumblebees on the wing; smaller birds such as great tits also occasionally learn to take bumblebees, while camouflaged crab spiders catch them as they visit flowers. The great grey shrike is able to detect flying bumblebees up to 100 m (330 ft) away; once captured, the sting is removed by repeatedly squeezing the insect with the mandibles and wiping the abdomen on a branch. The European honey buzzard follows flying bees back to their nest, digs out the nest with its feet, and eats larvae, pupae and adults as it finds them.Bumblebees are parasitised by tracheal mites, Locustacarus buchneri; protozoans including Crithidia bombi and Apicystis bombi; and microsporidians including Nosema bombi and Nosema ceranae. The tree bumblebee B. hypnorum has spread into the United Kingdom despite hosting high levels of a nematode that normally interferes with queen bees’ attempts to establish colonies. Deformed wing virus has been found to affect 11% of bumblebees in Great Britain.Female bee moths (Aphomia sociella) prefer to lay their eggs in bumblebee nests. The A. sociella larvae will then feed on the eggs, larvae, and pupae left unprotected by the bumblebees, sometimes destroying large parts of the nest.

See also

Ophrys bombyliflora, the bumblebee orchid


Abbott, Carl, and Bartlett, John. “Bumble Bees”. Encarta Encyclopedia. 2004 ed. Anon. “Bees”. World Book Encyclopedia, 1998 ed. Benton, Ted. Bumblebees. New Naturalist Series (#98). Collins, 2006. Freeman, Scott. Biological Science. Upper Saddle River, 2002. Goulson, Dave. Bumblebees: Their Behaviour and Ecology, 2003. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-852607-5. Goulson, Dave. A Sting in the Tale. Jonathan Cape, 2013. Hasley, William D. “Bees”. Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1990 ed. Macdonald, Murdo. Bumblebees. Scottish Natural Heritage, 2003. Macdonald, Murdo & Nisbet, G. Highland Bumblebees: Distribution, Ecology and Conservation. HBRG, 2006. ISBN 0-9552211-0-2. – Supplement 2 (2007). Michener, C.D. The Bees of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Schweitzer, Dale F. et al. Conservation and Management of North American Bumble Bees. Washington D.C.: U.S. Forest Service, 2012.

External links#

Bumblebees of the world – find species by region, species groups, colour pattern, Bumblebee Conservation Trust IUCN’s Bumblebee Specialist Group Bombus Identification Guide, Discover Life: List of Species, Worldwide Species Map. Deciphering the Mystery of Bee Flight

Bumblebees get their name from the buzzing sound they make when they fly, and the word “bumble” means to hum or buzz. The genus Bombus, which comprises over 250 species, is the only extant genus in the bumblebee tribe Bombini. Bumblebees are larger and stouter-bodied than honeybees and have varied appearances with broad bands of color. They are found in temperate climates, often at higher latitudes and altitudes, and can regulate their body temperature. Bumblebees have predators such as badgers and birds, and they can be parasitized by mites and diseases.

Ancestry Graph

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Further Information


This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Bombus the free encyclopedia Wikipedia which is released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License). On Wikipedia a list of authors is available.