Bumble Bee Foraging Behaviour

Updated: 1st March 2021

Common Questions About Bumble Bee Foraging Behaviours

Bumble bee foraging behaviours are complex, with many variables, such as: 

  • How far will bumble bees fly to find food?  (What is the foraging range?
  • Do bumble bees waggle dance?
  • How do bumble bees know which flowers to visit?
  • At that time of the day do bumble bees forage?
  • Are bumble bees attracted to particular flowers – and do they stick to specific types (flower constancy)? Do bumble bees nectar rob? 

Here we explore some of these themes.

1. How far do bumble bees fly for food?Bumble bee foraging range


There is some evidence suggesting that foraging ranges vary according to the different bumble bee species   (i.e. some forage closer to the nest, others further away) and it is also possible that there is some correlation between foraging range and nest (colony) size, with bumble bee species from typically smaller colonies tending to forage closer to home (less than 1500m) than those with larger colony size - i.e. more than 2 km from the nest (Walther-Hellwig and Frankl 2000).

Bumble bee in flight toward raspberry flower.Bumble bee in flight toward raspberry flower.

However, the data on bumble bees does not provide a clear picture, to my knowledge.  Flight and foraging ranges are variable, dependent on species and environmental factors (i.e. availability of rewarding flowers).  Various studies have been carried out, but the results are rather mixed and not conclusive.  In some instances, the results could be said to have been a product of the study design, rather than providing a realistic picture of bumble bee foraging distances. You can read more about how far bees fly with links to scientific studies.

2. Do bumble bees ‘waggle dance’?


It is believed that bumble bees do not perform a waggle dance to communicate food locations as such.  However, returning foragers run around the nest emitting a pheromone which is believed to stimulate foraging behaviour (Dornhaus and Chittka 1999, 2001).

Interestingly, stingless bees appear to perform a kind of dance which some may find reminiscent of the honey bee waggle dance, although again, it is not clear whether the dance itself confirms the location of appropriate flora (Chittka 2009).

Bumble bee flying toward purple loosestrife.Bumble bee flying toward purple loosestrife.

3. How do bumble bees know which flowers to visit?


Some evidence suggests that bumble bees may learn about rewarding flower species (i.e. species of flowers which provide lots of nectar and pollen), directly through observing other conspecific foragers (i.e. bees of the same species) (Worden and Papaj 2005). 

Bumble bee foraging on pink restharrow flower growing from sandy soil.Bumble bee foraging on restharrow.

Bumble bees will also switch flower species to a more rewarding alternative more quickly if other bees are foraging there than if alone, because they are attracted to occupied flowers (Leadbeater and Chittka 2007).

However, despite a willingness to forage together, they are able to detect and avoid visiting flowers which have recently been visited by other bees.  How?

Bees have an oily residue on the whole surface of their bodies, including the feet.  Research has suggested that upon visiting flowers, at least some species leave a trace of this residue behind.

Honey bees, for example, use these temporary scent marks act as a repellent in order that other honey bees can distinguish and reject flowers that have recently been visited by themselves or their colony members.  This means they avoid wasting time by exploring and probing empty flowers. 

It has been found that bumble bee species also exhibit this behaviour.  The bumble bee species Bombus terrestris and Bombus pascuorum were able to distinguish and avoid flowers which had previously been visited by conspecifics and other Bombus species. (Goulson, Hawson and Stout 1998).  

2 Bumble bees foraging on yellow  helianthus.Bumble bees foraging on helianthus.

4. At what time of the day do bumble bees forage?

A study by Herrera (1990) showed that in two common garden species studied (Bombus terrestris and Bombus lucorum), foraging activity peaked early (5am – 7am) and late (5 – 7 pm).  Note that ‘peak’ nevertheless can imply that some foraging may also occur outside of those times.

Manufacturers of pesticides (including garden insecticides) may advise their application during the morning, to minimise the risk to bees, which may be foraging, however, in light of the evidence, this claim may merit further investigation. 

5. Are bumble bees attracted to particular flowers – and do they stick to specific types (flower constancy)?

It is believed that bees learn to favour flowers that have previously provided a reward, thus they continue to forage on the species whilst ever the reward remains available. 

This makes for efficient foraging, since the complex shapes of some flowers means that bees may have to develop the knack of gaining access to the pollen and nectar stores within. 

Once the bee has learned how to efficiently tackle a flower species, it therefore makes sense to exploit it for food whilst the nourishment remains available. 

Bumble bee on pink rosebay willow herb flowersBumble bee on rosebay willow herb.

It is well known that different bumble bee species have different tongue lengths.  Whilst it seems this could affect the foraging behaviour of bumble bees, it should be noted that even within a single colony, tongue length can vary, simply because of the varied sizes of the workers and males. 

Bumble bees may also engage in nectar robbing if they are attracted by a large volume of nectar, but cannot easily reach it.   Bumble bees with shorter tongue lengths are more likely to engage in this behaviour than short tongued species.  Read more about different flower shapes.

Bumble bee nectar robbing aquilegia flower.Bumble bee nectar robbing aquilegia flower.

Flower shapes also play a role in that some flower species are visited only by particular bees.  For instance Hypericum vouytcheuse are visited for pollen only by Bombus lucorum and Bombus pascuorum workers using buzz foraging.  The fact that only these species visit the plants minimises competition for the food reward offered.

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