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Garden bumblebee (Image courtesy of Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

Did you know…?

Bumblebees are not aggressive – they will only sting if they are threatened.

Look closer at the image of a bumblebee

  • What three words would students use to describe a bumblebee?
  • What do students think a bumblebee’s sting might look like? They can look closely at the image of the bumblebee’s sting here. Were they right? Unlike honeybees, bumblebees can use their stings more than once.
  • What do they think a bumblebee’s eyes and tongue might look like? They can look closely at of a bumblebee’s head and tongue (proboscis) here. Were they right?

What type of animal is a bumblebee?

Bees are insects – and one of our most important creatures. This is because they are excellent pollinators – without them we wouldn’t be able to grow many of our favourite foods, such as tomatoes and strawberries.

They are also essential for pollinating plants that provide food and shelter for so much of our wildlife. Not to mention keeping the countryside beautiful: bees are responsible for pollinating three-quarters of the UK’s wildflowers.

Like all insects, they have an exoskeleton (a hard coating on the outside of the body, rather than bones inside), three major body parts, six jointed legs and at least one pair of antennae. Many insects – like bees – also have wings.

There are about 270 different species of bee in Britain, but along with the honeybee, bumblebees are probably the most well-known.

Where do bumblebees live?

Unlike the honeybee, bumblebees don’t make honey or live in hives (which are usually provided and managed by humans). Bumblebees are a type of wild bee. They live in a range of habitats including meadows, heathland and hedgerows, as well as urban gardens and parks.

Bumblebees need a place to shelter and build a nest, usually in a hole in the ground, where they live in a colony with other bumblebees. They also need access to plenty of nectar-rich flowers.

What do bumblebees eat?

Bees are herbivores: they like to eat nectar and pollen from flowers. They are especially attracted to purple flowers.

How are bumblebees adapted to their habitat?

A bumblebee’s legs are covered with sticky hairs that help it to collect pollen. They also have long tongues for reaching into flowers to collect nectar. The queen and worker bees have special holders on their back legs called pollen baskets.

Bumblebees have furry bodies and can generate heat while they’re flying. This means they are well adapted to colder weather and often the first bees to be seen in spring.

Are bumblebees endangered?

Bumblebees are in trouble and their numbers are declining. This is due to a combination of factors, but particularly habitat loss and the use of toxic pesticides.

Since the Second World War, a whopping 97% of wildflower meadows in England and Wales have been lost due to human activity, such as intensive farming, and industrial and housing developments. Thousands of miles of hedgerows have also been removed. Certain pesticides (especially neonicotinoids) designed to kill unwanted pests are also having a harmful effect on all types of bees.

Local links

In 2020, a set of special bee meadows were created at the Batts Nature Reserve near Hartlepool. The project regenerated an ancient meadow that had become overgrown with thick grasses, transforming it with wildflowers and special crescent-shaped mounds perfect for ground-nesting bees to burrow into.

The Dorman Museum’s Wriggle and Crawl session uses its fascinating natural history collection to explore butterflies and bees. Find out more here.

A range of wildlife sessions are also available at our other museums. Find out more about sessions for Key Stage 1 here and Key Stage 2 here.

What can we do to help bees?

  • Planting plenty of flowers and herbs is a great way to help bees – this can be done in anything from a small window box to a patch of garden in the school grounds, to a whole meadow.
  • This Wild About Gardens factsheet has lots of further information and useful ideas and tips for helping bees, from links to the most nectar and pollen-rich flowers to plant, to how to spot and help a tired bumblebee.
  • Friends of the Earth have even more ideas and resources for helping bees, including their bee saver kit.
  • The Natural History Museum has this guide to creating a wildlife-friendly garden.

Find out more

Video of a bumblebee collecting pollen – clearly showing the yellow pollen baskets on its back legs

Blooms for bees – labelled diagram of the different parts of a bumblebee

BBC Video – why are bees so important?

WWF Video – top 10 facts about bees

Friends of the Earth – 14 facts you need to know about bees

RSPB – bumblebee fact file

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