The threat to honeybees draws most of the press when discussing the decline of vital pollinators in North America. But while the threat to honeybees is a worthy topic that deserves discussion, it often eclipses the threat to our native bees that are often more efficient pollinators than their exotic cousins.
North America bumblebees comprise roughly 50 related bee species in a range of colors and sizes scattered across the continent. Most of these bees are marked by the classic bumblebee appearance: a big fuzzy body, often displaying traditional yellow and black warning colors, and a characteristic lazy flight pattern that meanders as the bees loudly buzzes between attractive flowers. Bumblebees are social insects that live in small colonies typically found below the ground in shallow burrows, rather than in trees or on structures, that are created by small vertebrates. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees do not produce excessive amounts honey—only enough to feed the colony for a short period of time.
Bumblebees are especially efficient pollinators thanks to the thousands of years to adapt to the native plants and climate of North America. Because they’re better adjusted to temperate environments than honeybees, they can continue pollinating during cool weather, with some species still actively feeding up until the point of freezing.
The Right Body Type
Two specific features in particular to make bumblebees good pollinators: the length of their tongues, and their hairy bodies. The tongue length will vary among species, and some are designed perfectly for specific plant families. The bumblebee’s fuzzy appearance comes from fine branched or forked hairs, which capture and hold on to pollen.
Finally, the bumblebee performs a special trick known as “buzz pollination,” which is essential for the fruit set of plants in the Solanaceae family, such as tomatoes or potatoes, as well as many other crops, like blueberries. These plants are very conservative with their pollen and require a special maneuver to extract pollen. A bumblebee will approach the flower, grab on, and then utilize their flight muscles to vibrate the plant, which helps to release this hard-to-get pollen. While bumblebees aren’t the only insects capable of buzz pollination, it’s a task that the well-publicized honeybee cannot do.