Do Bumblebees Make Honey?

Everyone knows honey bees make honey.  But what about bumblebees?

Do bumblebees make honey?

In one sense, it could be said that bumblebees have their own version of honey – but it is not really honey exactly. 

What they have is nectar stores for food, which are needed for a short period of time, and in comparison with honey bees, bumblebees store only a tiny amount.

This, along with other reasons, means that humans do not harvest bumblebee nectar stores for human consumption (at least, not in the West) – although there are indeed animals that will happily eat a bumblebee nest, complete with nectar stores and larvae.

Before we go any further, let us consider, what honey actually is, and what it means to the bees themselves.

Honey From Honey Bees

In short, honey is an edible sweet substance made by bees from nectar gathered from flowers.

Honey made by honey bees, and which is harvested by humans, is actually stored and capped nectar that has been transformed into honey.    

The honey bees gather nectar and store it in wax cells.  When the bees regurgitate the nectar for storing into the wax cells, it is mixed with a bee enzyme, and later it is fanned by the bees so that it becomes thicker and more concentrated (this is an oversimplification, but you can read more detail on my page what is honey?).  The honey will contain traces of pollen too. 

Once the honey is ready, it is ‘capped’ by the bees, which means they cover the wax cell with a layer of wax.  This capped honey in the wax combs is actually winter stores for the honey bees to feed on during the colder months and poor weather, when they are unable to go out and forage for food, and when there are fewer flowers in the environment providing food for bees.

However, it is also when the honey has been capped that beekeepers harvest honey, because they now know the honey is ready.

The Bumblebee Version Of Honey Stores: Nectar In Nectar Pots

When a queen bumblebee emerges from hibernation, she feeds, finds a suitable location for a nest, and begins to establish her colony.  In so doing, she makes a nectar pot from wax which she secretes from the underside of her abdomen.  She then gathers nectar from flowers, and she transfers this nectar to the nectar pots.  The bumblebee queen will feed on the nectar herself from the nectar pots, as she incubates her eggs.

In addition, as the queen rears her young, the new bumblebees will emerge and will also feed on nectar from the nectar pots too.  It could be said that in one sense, this is the bumblebee version of honey, but as stated, it is not the same as that produced by honey bees - there is no extended transformation period, and the nectar is gathered and stored in the wax pots in much smaller quantities. 

Below is a picture showing the inside of a bumblebee nest with a young colony.

Why Don’t Bumblebees Make Honey In The Same Way As Honey Bees?

Bumblebees do not need to store food over the winter period – i.e. they have no need for ‘winter stores’.  This is because bumblebee colonies do not have the same extended colony life cycle that honey bees have.  Honey bee colonies should ideally thrive through the winter, and because of this, they need winter stores – the honey.

Where bumblebees are concerned, only the new queens will survive and hibernate through the winter, whilst the rest of the colony (the older queen, workers and males) will not.  This means there is no need for bumblebees to store food to feed the colony during winter months.  The new queens will survive by feeding and building up their fat reserves ready for hibernation.  There are some exceptions in some countries with warmer climates, such that bumblebees remain active through the winter, but again, due to the warmer climate, the bees are able to forage and so there is no need for winter stores, which is what honey eaten by humans (made by honey bees), really is.


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