The Not-So-Humble Bumble Bee

There is a certain romance surrounding the bumble bee. Somehow, it seems more like a character in a children’s book or song. Perhaps this is due to its endearing name— “bumble” as in to hum, buzz or drone—and brightly banded, hairy appearance. These features have been reflected in many stories and depictions. In fact, before the generic name ‘bumble bee’ was created in 1802, this bee was referred to as the ‘humblebee’, appearing in William Shakespeare’s 1595 comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he states, “the honey bags steal from the humble bees”.

The bumble bee is a member of the genus Bombas. This group are found primarily in higher altitudes or latitudes in the northern hemisphere, but also in South America. Bumble bees are most commonly identified by their large, round bodies reaching up to 25mm that are covered in ample soft hair called ‘pile’, making them appear fuzzy. They are ausocial animals but live in smaller colonies than the honey bee. Similarly, they are also important pollinators, and their decline in Europe, North America and Asia due to agriculture, pesticides and habitat loss is a reason for concern.

However, in Australia, this group is seen as less than humble. The European bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) was introduced to Tasmania in 1992. While some sources believe this was an accident, others believe the bees were introduced deliberately. Since that time, the species has invaded most of the island. If these bumble bees slipped through quarantine services, or were introduced on the mainland for crop pollination, a vast feral invasion would begin that may have dire consequences.

So what repercussions could a seemingly harmless, humble bumble bee have on the Australian environment? To be frank, quite a few! As specialised pollinators in the genus Solanum, bumble bees have been known to spread weeds such as white horsenettle, buffalo burr, foxgloves, gorse, impatiens and rhododendrons. This pollination also reduces the seed production of native plants as it increases the production of weeds. They provide competition for native bees, other insects, birds and commercial bees for food. And on an urban scale, bumble bees have been known to nest in woodpiles, old furniture, leaf litter, compost heaps and cavities beneath houses, defending their nests aggressively if disturbed. Unlike the honey bee, the bumble bee can sting repeatedly, making them an unwanted visitor in your backyard!

For these reasons, it is important that bumble bees are controlled in Australia. Despite occasional sightings, no bumble bee colonies have been located on the mainland to date. Should a bumble bee be found, it should be reported to the Department of Primary Industries, as this exotic variety could cause a great deal of harm to Australia’s unique environment should it spread.

The Not-So-Humble Bumble Bee

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