The Plight of the Bumble Bee Part II: What Gives a Bee its Bumble?

The bumble bee may be the most potent weapon in my arsenal when it comes to convincing people of the existence of bees other than honey bees. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Person at Party Feigning Interest in My Research: (after me explaining that I do not study honey bees) Oh wow, that’s so interesting. I always thought there was only one kind of bee.
Me: You probably know about more kinds of bees than you think. Like, what about bumble bees?
PPFIMR: …Oh yeah.

So what about bumble bees?

Bees on the Wing

Mystery Bee Among the Blossoms

Mystery Bee Among the Blossoms (c) 2012 CRT

My mom, who lives near Washington, D. C., sent me this photo of a bee visiting some of the famous Japanese cherry blossoms that encircle the Tidal Basin. She wanted to know if it was a bumble bee. With only a wing, an abdomen and part of a leg to go on, it’s hard to say, but let’s go over the evidence of what constitutes a bumble bee:

There are 250 described species of Bombus (bumble bees) worldwide. They are medium-sized to large, robust, furry bees. They can be distinguished from the similarly-large carpenter bees (Xylocopa) because carpenter bees generally have shiny, not furry, abdomens and hold their wings out to the side at rest (bumble bees neatly fold one wing over the other).

But the best way to tell if a bee is a bumblebee? It’s on the legs.

When female bees visit flowers, they have to collect pollen to feed all the little mouths back at the nest. Most females use long, shaggy hairs called “scopae,” often located on the hind legs, that look kind of like retro legwarmers.

Honey bees and bumble bees, however, collect pollen on special smooth, flattened structures called “corbicula.” The best way to think of a corbicula is as a tiny shopping basket that the bee fills with pollen to take home. Here’s a photo of a bumble bee’s corbicula from

Beatriz Moisset 2005

[an aside about corbicula: sometimes on really hot days during the field season, whenever I see a bumble bee, I start singing a song I like to call “Corbiculi, Corbicula,” which is sung to the tune of (surprise) “Funiculi, Funicula”. Hey, it helps keep me sane…]

So why am I confused by the Mystery Bee Among the Blossoms?

After I told my mom I wasn’t sure what kind of bee this was, she sent me this photo:

Want to test you bumble bee knowledge? Here’s a little quiz for you folks at home: is this bee a Bumble Bee or not?

Answer coming up next week…


2 responses to “The Plight of the Bumble Bee Part II: What Gives a Bee its Bumble?

  1. wings folded over the other.

  2. shaggy hairs on the legs

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