The bumblebee is one of the native bees of North America. Fast but not furious, the bumblebee queen and workers have stingers, but seldom sting. And while its bumbling flight pattern give the bumblebee a clumsy appearance, the bumblebee in fact is a better pollinator than the honey bee. Bumblebees can harvest pollen from flowers 400 times faster than honey bees can.
Bumblebees are extremely good pollinators that can collect pollen twice as fast as a honey bee. Bumblebees are social bees like honey bees, with one queen in a hive and workers that support her. However, bumblebees do not have a permanent colony like honey bees do. In autumn, each bumble colony dies out and only the young, mated queens hibernate, each separately, elsewhere in their own new hole. There will be only 150-200 bees in a bumble bee hive in comparison to 20-35,000 bees in a honey bee hive.
The bumblebee is an effective pollinator because of a pollination technique called "buzz pollination." Buzz pollination does not require the bumblebee to enter the flower in order to gather pollen, like other bees have to do. Instead, the heavy bumblebee clings to the bottom of the flower and vibrates its flight muscles, producing a “buzz” sound. This vibration causes pollen to fall out of the flower onto the bee. After scraping pollen off and mixing it with her spit, the female worker carries pollen on the underside of her fuzzy abdomen and on her rear legs. She also gathers nectar in these same trips. The bumble carries the pollen back to her hive to help raise the new generation of worker bumblebees. And yes, you guessed it - those workers will pollinate too!
The bumblebee is a productive pollinator for spring-through-fall gardens and flowers. Their buzz pollination is a huge asset for pollinating flowers that are problematic for other bees to pollinate, such as those of the nightshade family (e.g. tomatoes, eggplants, peppers). Bumblebees are excellent pollinators for blueberries, and they also does well in some greenhouse arrangements.
Since they perform well in greenhouses, bumblebees work in commercial greenhouses worldwide. They are commonly used to pollinate tomatoes. However, bumblebees' food source is nectar. Since tomatoes have little nectar, commercial greenhouses that solely produce tomatoes must provide bees with a substitute nectar (Karo corn syrup/water). Otherwise, bees foraging outside a greenhouse are able to find nectar.
Bumblebees won’t survive in your yard without flowering plants and trees that provide the nectar that is their food source. Bumblebees gather pollen for protein and other nutrients, but nectar is their source of energy. Without this nutrition in your yard, the bees and their young will starve. Fortunately, bumblebees are generalists, which means they'll gather nectar and pollen from a large variety of plants, including dandelions, blueberries, squash and lavender. Beware of hybrids and double blossoms as they have little to no pollen.