Do bumblebees make honey? Yes and no…and…maybe [UPDATED]

As kids, my friends and I did a lot of digging. We always seemed to be burrowing into slopes or excavating trenches, pretending to be archaeologists or treasure hunters. Indeed, there was a lot of ground treasure to be found in the part of Sunderland where I grew up. The area has a long history of pottery and glass making, and ship building, and the remnants of these industries could be uncovered every time we stuck a spade in the earth. Over time I developed my own small museum of interesting, unearthed fragments, including bits of hand-painted ceramics, glass bottles, and unidentifiable metal shards, alongside various animal bones I’d excavated. My parents quietly indulged this interest, and my muck-streaked face and clothes, even if they didn’t quite understand what I was doing.

Aged about 10, my first encounter with a bumblebee nest was during one such dig. On the waste ground behind a large advertising hoarding, we began digging into a low, grass-covered mound and accidentally excavated what was probably a small nest of Buff-tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). I can recall being fascinated by the waxy, odd shaped cells and by the sticky fluid that some of them were leaking. Being an adventurous sort of child I tasted the liquid: it was sweet and sticky, and that was my first encounter with bumblebee “honey”.

I’m going to leave those quotation marks in place because if you do an online search for “do bumblebees make honey?” you generally find that the answer is “no, only honey bees make honey”.

Now, defining honey as something made by honey bee strikes me as a circular argument at best. And it also neglects the “honey” made by meliponine bees that is central to the culture of stingless bee keeping by indigenous groups in Central and South America, and the long tradition pre-colonial tradition of honey hunting by Aboriginal Australians. So if we widen our definition of “honey” as being the nectar*-derived fluid stored in the nests of social bees, then Apis honey bees, stingless bees and bumblebees must all, by logic, make honey. And likewise there’s wasps in the genus Brachygastra from Central and South America that are referred to as “honey wasps” because, well, I’m sure you can work it out!

But this is where things become a little trickier, because turning nectar* into honey involves some complex evaporation and enzymatic activity, so that the resulting fluid is more concentrated and dominated by the sugars glucose and fructose. Although analysis of honey bee honey is commonplace, and there’s been some research conducted on the honey of stingless bees, I don’t know of any studies that have compared Bombus honey with that of other bees, or with what is stored in the nests of honey wasps**. If I’ve missed anything, please do comment and let me know, but this strikes me as an area of research demanding some attention.

So do bumblebees make honey? That very much depends on our definitions, but I’m happy to accept that they do because “honey” is not a single thing: it’s an insect-derived substance that can take a range of forms but serves the same broad purpose of feeding the colony. And although insects have probably been producing it for millions of years, I think I’ve known the answer to the question for almost 50 of them…

UPDATE: A couple of people have commented on social media that there are legal definitions of “honey” as a foodstuff. Here’s the definition according to UK law***:

“the natural sweet substance produced by Apis mellifera bees from the nectar of plants or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants which the bees collect, transform by combining with specific substances of their own, deposit, dehydrate, store and leave in honeycombs to ripen and mature”

So, legally, we can’t call anything that isn’t made by Apis mellifera “honey”, at least from a foodstuffs regulation perspective. But that’s clearly different to what we have been discussing above, which is about a biological definition of honey.

It’s also interesting to look at the compositional requirements of honey as a foodstuff (presented in Schedule one of that document, if you follow the link above). The lower limit for moisture content is 20%. Now if you consider that most nectar in flowers has a sugar content of between about 20% and 50%, clearly there’s been a lot of evaporative work done by the bees to reduce the amount of water in the honey. I would love to know how bumblebee (and other insect) “honey” compares to this: do they put the same kind of effort into evaporating the water from the stored nectar? Given that the purpose of reducing the water content is to prevent fermentation by yeasts when it’s stored for a long time, and that there are bumblebee species which have colonies that are active for more than one year, I imagine that at least some species in some parts of their range may employ similar tactics.

Thanks to everyone who has been commenting and discussing the topic. It never ceases to amaze me how much we still do not understand about some fundamental aspects of the natural history of familiar species!

*And honeydew to a greater or lesser extent.

**I’m going to ignore honey pot ants for now as this is complex enough as it is and they don’t store the “honey” in nest cells.

***From what I can gather definitions in other countries are similar.

5 thoughts on “Do bumblebees make honey? Yes and no…and…maybe [UPDATED]

  1. spamletblog

    I dipped into the pots of a grassy nest I uncovered by my compost heap long ago too! definitely sweet! There were also quite big grubs waving their ‘heads’ around too, and I never did learn if these were bee grubs or some parasite. I covered it over again, but it was gone next time I looked. I suspected that the wood mice that lived under the compost bin may have eaten them.

    Surprising nobody thought to analyse this before. (y)

    Reply
      1. spamletblog

        Thanks: I think I’ve seen white tailed ones like in the picture in more recent years, but just used to get the smaller bumblebees in Spring, and bigger yellow striped or red tailed ones later on.

        I had to revive a big one I found trying to swim in my kitchen sink, a couple of weeks ago. No idea how it got there, but some honey seemed to get it buzzing again, 🙂

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