Bumble bees love native plants.
Yesterday I was watching bumble bees fly around my garden for a while. It was a great way to relax. I watched one land on a flower and it reminded me of a tyrannosaurus rex — not because it is a ferocious carnivore but because it looks silly in the same way that the little front legs of the T-rex look silly. Their yellow and black bodies are kind of rolly-polly and their wings look improbably small. It seems impossible that they should be able to carry their large bodies around via those little cellophane appendages.
When I was a kid we always thought that the bumble bees were scary because we figured that they were bigger than other bees so they must be tougher and their sting must be worse. (That’s some kid-level reasoning based on no science or experience, mind you.) As an adult, though, I learned to think of them as fairly docile and helpful for my plants. I can sit cross-legged in the mulch right in front of them and they will never even bother to check out what I’m doing there, just inches from their favorite flowers. I also think that the garden would seem eerily quiet without them.
Over the winter, I was surprised to read accounts of people being stung by bumblebees. Some claim the sting is more painful than others, some less.
(I was also horrified to realize just how many junky websites out there posed as authorities on the topic — only to discover that they were actually written by pest control companies and exterminators out to make a buck! Watch those sources when you turn on the search engines, folks!)
I have yet to locate anyone who has ever been stung by a bumblebee in real life. Lots of people could recount the first time they were stung by a wasp, or the time they’d stepped on a honeybee. But I found myself asking people: Have you ever been stung by a bumble bee?
“Do they even have a stinger? my friends often replied.
So, Do Bumble Bees Sting?
The answer is yes, sometimes, but not often and only the females.
But does it hurt less or more than a honeybee? The answer remains illusive — partly because people judge pain differently and partly because it happens so infrequently that gathering a large body of opinions on the topic seems next to impossible.
Here are some facts, though, that aren’t illusive.
The bumble bee’s stinger is smoother and less barbed than a honeybee stinger. This, it seems, could be good or bad. The lack of barbs can make the stinger easier to remove quickly – helpful if you are trying to keep bee venom out of your system. But some sources say the smooth stinger can also allow bumble bees to sting multiple times.
Also, according to the Xerces Society, bumble bees will be most likely to sting if their nests are disturbed. Even so, it is pretty easy to avoid those nests and they rarely sting otherwise.
Bumblebees have Nests?
Bumblebees, just like their imported European cousins the honeybees, are social insects. They will live in a colony with a queen and female “worker bees” who leave the nest to forage for nectar and bring back pollen. Their nests are small, and often right at ground level. (Check out these pictures: http://beespotter.mste.illinois.edu/topics/social/)
When reading about the incredible habits of bumble bees, I realized that although I have seen hundreds of bumblebees in my own yard over the years, I have never, ever, encountered one of their nests. It is really shocking that something so common is so unknown and alien, especially since I spend so many hours poking around gardens and climbing around the woods in nearby parks.
Since many of the guides to bumblebees warned that the best way to avoid being stung is to know where they live and avoid their nests, I began to hunt in likely places: window wells, under the shed, under decks and around areas of the yard where we rarely dig. Nothing found.
Then, one warm afternoon in early May, I began to notice that a lot of bumblebees were spending time by the smooth rocks piled at one side of our front garden. Closer examination brought the discovery that they were going in and out of – you guessed it – a hidden nest. Sitting on the porch my kids recalled that same pile of rocks used to hide an entrance for the chipmunk that frequents our yard. (I still see the chipmunk but he or she seems to now prefer a side entrance under some ferns. )
It still remains unclear to me whether or not a bumblebee sting is more or less painful than a honeybee sting. One of my favorite bee websites, bumblebee.org, lays out the facts on this – but only relative to European bee stings. North American bees, it seems, are still under speculation so far as painful stings go.
Bumblebees are also facing threats these days, and we need their help with pollination desperately. http://www.xerces.org/bumblebees/
Given the fact that the bumble bees are so valuable as pollinators and the overwhelming anecdotal evidence in my life that no one I know has ever been stung by one, I think I’ll continue sitting out there in the mulch, watching those T-Rex-style bees buzz on by… and take pride in the fact that they find my yard so hospitable. They still make me smile.
If you wish you had bumble bees in your own yard and you want to try hosting them in a box, check out this website from the USDA: