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Honey Bees vs Bumble Bees

January 6, 2023 - Bees

Author - Tom Miche

honey bees vs bumble bees

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees (Bombus spp.) are both important pollinators with some shared characteristics, but they also have several distinct differences. Here is a comprehensive comparison between the two:


Honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees (Bombus spp.) have distinct differences in their appearance, which can help in distinguishing between the two:


  • Honey Bees: Generally smaller and more slender, with a length ranging from 1/2 to 5/8 inch (12 to 15 mm).

  • Bumble Bees: Typically larger and stockier, with a length ranging from 1/2 to 1 inch (12 to 25 mm), making them appear bulkier.


  • Honey Bees: Honey bees have a brownish-yellow to orange-yellow coloration. They have distinctive dark bands or stripes on their abdomen, typically with alternating dark and light segments.

  • Bumble Bees: Bumble bee coloration can vary widely among species, but they often have more vibrant and diverse colors. Some common colors include black, yellow, orange, red, and even metallic hues. Their bodies are covered in dense, fuzzy hair.


  • Honey Bees: They have relatively smooth and less hairy bodies compared to bumble bees. Their abdomen is mostly hairless except for the bands of hair.

  • Bumble Bees: Bumble bees are notably hairy, with a dense covering of hair on their entire body. This hair helps them collect and carry pollen.

Abdominal Pattern:

  • Honey Bees: The dark bands on the abdomen of honey bees are typically uniform in width and evenly spaced.

  • Bumble Bees: The abdominal bands of bumble bees can vary in width and may be irregularly spaced. Some bumble bee species have more prominent or distinctive abdominal patterns than others.


  • Honey Bees: Honey bee wings are relatively translucent, with veins that are less visible.

  • Bumble Bees: Bumble bee wings can appear darker and more veined, giving them a slightly different wing structure.

Head Shape:

  • Honey Bees: Honey bees have a more elongated and slender head.

  • Bumble Bees: Bumble bees often have a rounder and more robust head, which can contribute to their overall bulkier appearance.

Honey bees and bumble bees can be visually differentiated based on their size, coloration, hairiness, abdominal patterns, wing characteristics, and head shape. These distinctions in appearance are helpful in identifying these two important pollinator species.


Honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees (Bombus spp.) have different geographical distributions and habitat preferences. Here are the key differences in where these two types of bees can be found:

Geographical Range:

  • Honey Bees: Honey bees are found on every continent except Antarctica. They have a global distribution, and their range is extensive due to their domestication for honey production and pollination services. They are commonly found in both urban and rural environments.

  • Bumble Bees: Bumble bees are primarily found in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Europe, and parts of Asia. They are less widespread than honey bees and tend to be more concentrated in specific geographic areas. Some bumble bee species can also be found at higher elevations in mountainous regions.

Habitat Preferences:

  • Honey Bees: Honey bees are highly adaptable and can thrive in a variety of habitats, including agricultural landscapes, gardens, orchards, and urban areas. They often rely on human-managed hives and colonies for shelter.

  • Bumble Bees: Bumble bees have specific habitat preferences. They are often associated with more natural and less disturbed environments. Bumble bees are commonly found in meadows, grasslands, and other open spaces. They often nest underground in abandoned rodent burrows or similar cavities.

Altitudinal Range:

  • Honey Bees: Honey bees are less constrained by altitude and can be found at various elevations, including lowlands and highlands.

  • Bumble Bees: Bumble bee species may have different altitudinal preferences. While some are adapted to lowland areas, others are more commonly found at higher elevations, especially in mountainous regions.

Honey bees have a broader global distribution and are more adaptable to various habitats, including human-dominated environments. Bumble bees, on the other hand, are generally found in specific temperate regions and prefer natural, less disturbed habitats. Their distributions and habitat preferences reflect differences in their ecological roles and life histories.

Life Cycle:

The life cycles of honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees (Bombus spp.) differ in several key aspects, including colony structure, lifespan, and reproductive strategies. Here is a detailed comparison of their life cycles:

Honey Bee Life Cycle:

Colony Structure:

  • Honey bees live in large, perennial colonies that can consist of tens of thousands of individuals. These colonies have a caste system comprising a queen, workers, and drones.

  • The queen is the sole egg-laying female, and her primary role is reproduction. Workers are sterile females responsible for foraging, nursing, and maintaining the hive. Drones are male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with queens.


  • The queen lays both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs become workers or new queens, while unfertilized eggs develop into drones.

  • Colonies typically produce new queens and drones during specific periods, often in response to environmental cues such as changing day length or colony conditions.


  • Queens can live for several years, although their egg-laying capacity declines over time.

  • Workers live for several weeks to a few months, depending on the time of year and their role within the hive.

  • Drones have the shortest lifespan, typically surviving only a few weeks.

Colony Persistence:

  • Honey bee colonies can persist year-round, with the same queen and workers surviving through multiple seasons.

Seasonal Activity:

  • Honey bee colonies are active year-round. In colder months, they cluster together to conserve heat and rely on stored honey for nourishment.

Bumble Bee Life Cycle:

Colony Structure:

  • Bumble bees live in smaller, seasonal colonies consisting of a few hundred individuals. These colonies also have a caste system with a queen, workers, and drones.


  • Similar to honey bees, bumble bee queens lay both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. Fertilized eggs become workers or new queens, while unfertilized eggs develop into drones.

  • Unlike honey bee colonies, bumble bee colonies produce new queens and drones toward the end of the season, usually in late summer or fall.


  • Bumble bee queens can live for several months, typically from spring through the summer.

  • Workers have shorter lifespans, usually a few weeks to a few months, depending on their role and the timing of their emergence.

  • Drones also have relatively short lives, often surviving only a few weeks.

Colony Persistence:

  • Bumble bee colonies are seasonal, with the entire colony dying off in late fall. Only newly mated queens survive the winter to start new colonies the following spring.

Seasonal Activity:

  • Bumble bee colonies are active during the warmer months, from spring to late summer or early fall.

Honey bees have perennial colonies with year-round activity, while bumble bees have smaller, seasonal colonies that die off in the fall. Additionally, the timing of reproduction and the lifespan of the various castes within the colony differ between the two species. These differences in life cycles reflect their distinct ecological strategies and adaptations to their respective environments.


Unlike honey bees, bumble bees do not produce honey for long-term storage. Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) do not eat honey in the same way that honey bees (Apis mellifera) do.

Bee Stings

Bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and honey bees (Apis mellifera) both have the ability to sting, but there are some differences in their stinging behavior and the characteristics of their stings:

Stinger Characteristics:

  • Honey Bees: Honey bees have barbed stingers, which means that their stingers have tiny backward-facing barbs or hooks. When a honey bee stings, the barbed stinger becomes lodged in the skin of the target, along with a portion of the bee's abdomen and digestive tract. This results in the honey bee's death shortly after stinging.

  • Bumblebees: Bumble bees have smoother stingers without barbs. Their stingers lack the barbs that honey bee stingers have. As a result, bumble bees can sting multiple times without injuring themselves.

Stinging Behavior:

  • Honey Bees: Honey bees are generally less aggressive when compared to some other bee species. They tend to sting primarily in defense of their hive or colony. When a honey bee stings, it releases a pheromone that signals other nearby honey bees to join in the defense, making them more likely to swarm and sting together.

  • Bumblebees: Bumble bees are also not as aggressive as some other stinging insects. They are less likely to sting unless they feel directly threatened or cornered. Bumble bees are usually not protective of their colonies to the same extent as honey bees.

Number of Stings:

  • Honey Bees: A honey bee can typically sting only once due to the barbed stinger, which gets stuck in the target's skin. After stinging, the honey bee dies.

  • Bumblebees: Bumble bees can sting multiple times without dying because their stingers lack barbs. They can withdraw their stingers and continue to sting if they perceive a threat.

Sting Pain and Reaction:

  • Honey Bee Stings: Honey bee stings are known to be painful, and some individuals may have allergic reactions to bee venom, leading to swelling, itching, and sometimes more severe symptoms.

  • Bumble Bee Stings: Bumble bee stings can also be painful, but because they typically carry less venom than honey bees, the pain and allergic reactions may be less severe in most cases.

The key differences between bumblebee and honey bee stings lie in the structure of their stingers and their stinging behavior. Honey bee stingers have barbs and can only sting once, while bumble bee stingers lack barbs and can sting multiple times. Bumble bees are generally less aggressive in their stinging behavior compared to honey bees, and their stings are often perceived as less painful. However, individual reactions to stings can vary, and some people may be more sensitive or allergic to bee venom, which can result in more severe reactions regardless of the bee species.

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