Having problems viewing this? View it in your browser here.

Helping bees

Bumble bee populations all around the world are declining. Your Zoo's donor-funded Conservation Today program is helping to raise awareness and educate the public about these important pollinators, while protecting the bees that live on Zoo grounds.


Click here to watch a video, shot right in Nature's Neighborhood, of honeybees "dancing" to communicate with their hivemates.
Photo: Ingrid Taylar, flickr/creative commons license

People often think yellowjackets are bees, but these wasps are more closely related to hornets than bees.
Photo: Richard Bartz, creative commons license

Nature's Neighborhood, our award-winning children's zoo, has a working honey bee hive where visitors can observe bees close-up. We use the honey produced here to enrich our other animals' lives; learn more here. Photo: Andi Norman

When you buy selected Zoo merchandise like this purple coneflower t-shirt, you support Conservation Today. Look for displays at the Zoo's North Star Trading Post® and KC's Corner Store. Merchandise includes selected plush animals, totes, apparel and more.
Photo: Deborah Noward

story by Kandace York
Sept. 19, 2013

Bumble bees vs. honey bees vs. wasps

First, you need to know the difference between bumble bees, honey bees and wasps, because people often get these three mixed up.
  • Bumble bees (shown in the banner image above) have thick, fuzzy bodies and are the largest of these three insect species. They are native to North America and do not produce excess honey.
  • Honey bees (shown at left) are smaller and less fuzzy, with thinner wings than bumble bees. They are not native to North America; Europeans brought them here as honey producers.
  • Yellowjackets (shown below the honey bee image) are not bees at all; they're wasps.

Why we care

Biologists estimate that 80 percent of the world's food plant species depend on animal pollination, and almost all of these are insects.

"Three out of every 10 bites of food are the result of insect pollinators," Mitch Magdich, the Zoo's curator of Education, explains. "A watermelon flower, for example, needs 1,000 pollen grains to be properly pollinated. That can only be accomplished by dozens of honey bee visits."

Add beverages, fiber and ornamental plants to the mix, and pollinators become even more important.

Risky season

Fall is is a tough time for bumble bees, because the queens are preparing for winter. They've spent much of the summer building the populations in their nests and being tended by worker bees who forage for pollen and nectar, guard the nest from intruders and care for young bumble bees.

But in late fall, all the hard-working worker bumble bees die. A few males mate with young bumble bee queens before the females seek winter refuge.

Unlike honey bees that overwinter in large groups to keep each other warm, these queen bumble bees survive the winter alone. Many will die.

In the spring, surviving bumble bee queens emerge to start new colonies and continue their tenuous life cycle. But even surviving the winter is no guarantee; all season long, they face shrinking habitats and ever-greater threats from toxic chemicals.

Learn more about bumble bees of the eastern U.S.

What we're doing

The Zoo's 74 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, trees, flowers and native prairie habitat offer an urban oasis for bees. This is where Mitch Magdich is working to increase knowledge and awareness of all bees, but particularly native bumble bees.

So far he's found four species of native bumble bees on Zoo grounds. "One, the eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens), is extremely common," he says. "Two others (B. griseocollis and B. fervidus) are less common. And one, B. auricomus, is uncommon."

Understanding which species live here will help Zoo staff continue to offer these little animals a fair chance at survival. Staffers will do this through growing native plants the bees need, and through good management practices in taking care of these plants.

What you can do

Mitch knows that his work, on its own, won't be enough to save native bumble bees.

"We need to increase awareness," he says. "People see bees and they see a nuisance, or they think they're going to get stung. In reality, when you see a bee out foraging, that's when it's the least dangerous, because it's busy collecting nectar or pollen. The only time you're likely to get stung is if you step on a bee or damage the nest."

You can help bees survive with some simple measures that could also save you time and money.

  • Plant native plants. Many bees are drawn to specific native plants.
  • Limit your use of pesticides on lawns and gardens. These are often pure poison to bees (and many other animals, too).
  • Consider natural options to control pests. Most pesticides kill bees, but you have other choices. "To get rid of Japanese beetles, for example, try milky spore instead of a pesticide," Mitch suggests. "I did that with my own lawn and the Japanese beetles disappeared."


Mitch's work is possible because of people just like you who support Conservation Today, the Zoo's donor-funded conservation initiative. Thank you for your support!


Above: Bees like this honey bee are important pollinators worldwide. Despite a bad reputation for stinging,
that's only their last defense. They would much rather be left alone to do their important work pollinating plants
and, in turn, creating a much healthier, happier life for other animals -- including you! Photo: Dreamstime

Banner photo, top of page: golden northern bumble bee (Bombus fervidus), by John Baker/creative commons license




For more information about any of the Zoo’s programs or services, please call 419.385.5721 or visit toledozoo.org.