The Different Types of Bees -
And Their Differences!

What are the differences between the different types of bees? What is the difference between bumblebees and honey bees, or solitary bees and bumblebees?

Of course, there are thousands of species of bees across the world – most of them being solitary bee species, and I cannot cover every species on this site.

However, let’s take a look at some of the general differences between honey bees, bumblebees and solitary bees with regard to behavioural and life cycle habits.

But please note, these really are only general comments!  There may be exceptions, and they are not covered here.

Click on one of these links to read about the differences with regard to:

Colony size and structure
Honey production
Life span
Life cycle

Colonies and the Different Types of Bees

Honey bees: Honey bees live in large, well organised colonies or ‘societies’ of around 50,000 to 60,000 workers.

Bumblebees: Bumblebees live in much smaller colonies, generally with around 120 workers, but sometimes as small as 40 workers, or very occasionally as many as 400 in a rare, but very successful colony. 

In tropical climates, some bumblebee species may produce much larger colonies.

Solitary bees: Solitary bees are of course, solitary, although some species do live in a form of society, with sister bees nesting close to each other.  Species of mining bees can often be seen nesting in aggregations, with lots of  tunnels or burrows from different bees occupying a patch of bare ground or lawn.

Nests and the Different Types of Bees

Honey bees: In the wild, honey bees make their nests in the cavities of trees or buildings. However, man has domesticated the honey bee, so that they may be kept in hives.

Bumblebees: I have often been asked if bumblebees live in hives. Of course, hives are man-made constructs for keeping honey bees which live in large colonies. Depending on the species of bumblebee, some may nest in abandoned rodent holes, whilst others will choose tussocks of grass. However, with declining habitat availability, they are becoming increasingly adaptable, and have been found to nest in abandoned bird boxes and I have even heard of a bumblebee nest in an old jacket pocket! See my page about bumblebee nests.

Solitary bees: again, depending on the species, they may construct small nests in the ground, in cavities in wood or hollow stems - or even snail shells.

Many solitary bees can be encouraged into the garden by providing hollow canes, or commercial bee houses and insect hotels are readily available, like this one below.

Honey and the Different Types of Bees

Honey bees: Honey bees make a large quantity of honey (possible due to the size of colonies – that is, many worker bees collecting nectar). Honey consists of nectar combined with a ‘bee enzyme’ that goes through a process of concentration in the honeycomb before it is capped by the bees. Learn more on my page 'How do bees make honey?'(Note: Meliponina - a type of bee closely related to the honey bee, and commonly called 'Stingless bee' also make a small amount of honey).

Bumblebees: Bumblebees, in one sense, make a form of honey, which they collect in nectar pots to be eaten by the colony, including the newly hatched worker females. However, the process of concentrating, capping, and the making of honey combs does not happen in bumblebee colonies, nor is nectar stored over winter, since only the queen survives and hibernates, whilst the rest of the colony do not.  Really, what bumblebees have is temporary nectar stores.  You can read more about this subject on this page: Do bumblebees make honey?

Solitary bees: Solitary bees do not make honey combs. They construct egg cells which they provision with a ball of nectar and pollen that will be consumed by the new larvae.

Queens and the Different Types of Bees

Honey bees: Honey bee queens may naturally live for 2 to 3 years, but even as many as 4 years.

She lays thousands of eggs. You can read more about the honey bee queen here.

Bumblebees: Bumblebee queens have much shorter life cycles. Some bumblebees emerge earlier or later than others, but a new queen bumblebee emerging in the late summer will mate, hibernate, and remerge the following year to establish a new colony. By the time she herself produces new queens, it may then be the late summer again, whereupon she and the rest of the colony will not usually survive (although patterns can vary in different countries). Thus, if successful, a bumblebee queen could live for up to one year. During this time, depending on the species, she may produce a colony of 40 -120 workers. A very large and less common, could have as many as 400 workers.

Solitary bees: Solitary bees have adult females – I have never heard these females referred to as ‘queens’ as such. All females emerging from egg cells have the capability to mate and produce both males and females (in contrast with worker female bumblebees, for example, which can only produce male bumblebees, and cannot determine whether females will be become queens or not). The number of eggs produced by the adult female varies according to the type of solitary bee species, some may build a series of nests, each containing 4 – 10 eggs. Others may lay fewer or more, but in any case, they do not produce large numbers of workers as honey bees do.

Swarming and the Different Types of Bees

I often get asked about bumblebee swarms. However, whereas honey bees do swarm, bumblebees do not (although you may see a small 'drone cloud' or gathering of males in some species, such as Bombus hypnorum - and perhaps this might be described as a 'bumblebee version' of swarming). Of course solitary bees are solitary, so they do not swarm, although again, you may see groups (or 'aggregations' of solitary bees buzzing around a nest site, since they will often makes nests in communal groups.

To find out more about this fascinating natural part of the honey bee life cycle, click this link about swarming bees.

How Long do the Different Types of Bees live?

Removing external factors such as predators or man's intereference, the answer is: 'It depends on the kind of bee, and the role withing the colony'. Rather than go into detail here, see may page entitled 'How long do bees live?'.

Life cycles of the Different Types of Bees

Not surprisingly, if the life spans vary between the different types of bees, then so do the life cycles. Again, rather than explain all here, see my page about the bee life cycle.

As stated,, this is only a broad and general overview of some of the key differences between the different types of bees. To read more about them, why not click on the links below:

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