The hidden life of the humble bumblebee

The hidden life of the humble bumblebee

Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Communications Officer, Rachel Shaw, discovers the hidden lives of one of our favourite insects.

There’s something pleasing about watching a bumblebee; a ball of fur clumsily bumbling from flower to flower. It’s remarkable how such chubby insects can get airborne. For a long time there was even a myth that it was impossible for them to be able to fly. Physicists have provided the answer but there is still much more to the humble bumblebee than meets the eye.

Smelly feet

Whenever a bumblebee’s foot touches a surface, it leaves a scented footprint. Like our fingerprints, these scent marks are unique to individual bumblebees. It’s not just their smelly feet that are impressive; bumblebees can recognise their own scent and distinguish between the scents of their relatives and that of strangers. Knowing which flowers they have visited already and who else has visited, helps improve the efficiency of their feeding.


Nectar thieves

There are 24 species of bumblebee. Different species have different tongue lengths and different flower preferences. The garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) has the longest tongue of all the UK bumblebees. At full stretch it can be 2cm long. This means they can feed on the nectar of deep-tubed flowers that other bumblebees can’t reach. Though this doesn’t always deter the other species. Some bumblebees sneak round the back of the flowers, make a small hole and steal the nectar. The plant gets nothing in return because the bee thief isn’t taking any pollen; pollination can’t occur

Bumblebee with long tongue


Most bumblebee species are social insects. They live in large colonies with a single queen and work to the benefit of the colony but there six species that take advantage of their sociable relatives. These are known as cuckoo bumblebees. Like their namesake, the well-known bird, they invade the nests of other bumblebees, lay their eggs and leave the workers of that nest to care for their young.

Next time you’re watching a bumblebee flying between flowers and pollinating them, remember that their lives - which are essential to our lives - are also filled with drama and intrigue.

Buff tailed bumblebee

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION