I found a fantastic scientific paper this week that made me so happy. It was about how bumblebees PLAY.
Isn’t that just so cute???
I’ll tell you more about this paper and its finding in a second – first, I want to introduce you to the humble bumblebee.
Bumblebees (also spelled bumble bee, bumble-bee, and even humble-bee) are any of the 250 species of bees that are a part of the bee genus Bombus. You usually find bumblebees in the Northern Hemisphere (so North America, Europe, and Asia), but some tropical species have been found in South America. You can also find them in Africa (north of the Sahara Desert) and in New Zealand, where they were introduced as pollinators for European red clover.
Bumble vs. Honey
One of the big questions I’m sure you’re asking yourself is, “What exactly is the difference between bumblebees and honey bees?”
I’m glad you asked! There are actually quite a few differences between these two types of bees.
First off, appearance. Bumblebees are rather round and plump with a rounded abdomen tip, especially compared to honey bees. Honey bees are, in contrast, more slender. Bumblebees also tend to have darker wings and fewer (if any) stripes than honey bees. Finally, bumblebees are much fuzzier than honey bees.
Next question: do bumblebees make honey? Eh, not really. At least not like honey bees do. Bumblebees will collect nectar from flowers and store it for their queen, but they don’t dehydrate it like honey bees do – and it’s this dehydration that turns nectar into honey. Bumblebees also don’t store nearly enough nectar for humans to bother collecting it for our own use.
What about stingers? Like honey bees, bumblebees do have stingers on the end of their abdomen. However, unlike honey bees, bumblebee stingers are not barbed and are instead smooth. This means that a bumblebee can sting an animal and remove their stinger from the flesh to sting again. (The barbed stinger of the honey bee means they cannot remove their stinger without ripping out their abdominal tissue.) Still, even though a bumblebee can sting multiple times, they tend to be pretty docile and only sting when cornered or when their nest is disturbed.
Another key difference between bumblebees and honey bees is that while honey bee colonies can live for decades, bumblebee colonies only last a single year. This in turn means that bumblebee colonies never really have the chance to grow to the size of honey bee colonies – bumblebee colonies tend to max out at around 250 – 500 individuals on average, while honey bee colonies are on average around 50,000 individuals.
Every spring, bumblebee queens emerge from their underground hibernation to look for a nest. Once a nest is found, the queen will start laying eggs that will hatch into worker bees to support the colony through the spring in summer. When late summer and early fall hit, the queen lays her last clutch of eggs. These eggs will hatch into new queens and males who will fertilize them. The colonies die out entirely in the fall, and the new queens go underground to hibernate through the winter.
The miracle of flight
Looking at a bumblebee, you’d be tempted to agree with the opening lines from 2007’s Bee Movie: “According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”
But good news: we do know how bumblebees fly because of science! Instead of flapping their wings up and down, bumblebees flap their wings back and forth, like a crappy helicopter. Their wings are also at a slight angle, which produces small hurricanes in the air under the wing. These ‘hurricanes’ (and the area of low pressure that exists in their eyes) help keep the bumblebee aloft.
Bumblebee flight relies on being able to move their wings quickly – they can beat their wings at an impressive 200 times a second. This is faster than insect motor nerves can typically fire, so bumblebees instead have thorax muscles that vibrate like a plucked rubber band.
However, flight isn’t always easy – in order to actually achieve flight, bumblebees must be warm. If they are too cold, bumblebees will shiver to raise their body temperature.
Bumblebee flight is important for humans, too, since they are ‘buzz’ pollinators. Their vibrating wings remove and collect pollen from flowers, which the bumblebee can then spread to other flowers. In fact, bumblebees are one of the most important pollinators in the world.
Okay, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: bumblebee play!
A recent paper in the journal Animal Behaviour examined whether the bumblebee Bombus terrestris would play if given the chance. They gave a colony of bumblebees unlimited access to food (this is important) and access to some wooden balls. Basically, as a bumblebee went down a corridor to get to the food, they could stop and play with wooden balls along the sides of this corridor.
And the bumblebees chose to do it! They would stop and roll the balls around before continuing towards the food.
But is this actually play? The researchers seem to think so.
First, ball rolling was not a necessary activity. Remember, the bumblebees had unlimited access to food. They didn’t need to stop and roll the balls; they would have gotten food whether they did or not. But the bumblebees still chose to stop and spend a few seconds ball rolling.
Ball rolling was also not similar to any other behaviors bumblebees typically do – they weren’t, for instance, getting confused and trying to mate with the balls. And just like vertebrates, younger bumblebees played more than older ones.
Finally, the bumblebees showed a preference for being in rooms that were the same color as the rooms where they rolled balls. Having this preference suggests that ball rolling was a pleasurable activity, a key component of play.
Obviously, it’s hard to definitively say if bumblebees are actually playing – we can’t just ask them. But the data suggest that it’s a distinct possibility.
In my opinion, the thought of bumblebees playing with balls just because they want to makes the world a happier place.