Friday, 17 June 2016

The bumblebee's tongue

On a cold grey miserable day last week I found two bumblebees in the greenhouse.  At first I thought they were dead but when I picked them up there were signs of life.  I gave each of them a drop of honey on a plant label and they were soon moving around.  While they were drinking I was able to take a few photos to show the details of the bumblebee's tongue.

The first was an Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) carrying white pollen.  The proboscis in this bee is relatively short by bumblebee standards.  It is composed of a stiff tube formed by two mandibles and two more flexible palps, the tips of which you can see here.

In this photo the mandibles are separated and the inner flexible tongue is in the honey.

The second bee was a Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum).  It shows nicely the long flexible brush-tipped tongue, usually used for sucking up nectar but just as good for honey in an emergency.

Today I found another Common Carder Bee carrying white and blue pollen.  I reckon to rescue several bees a day from the greenhouse - mostly bumblebees and honey bees - but they rarely need resuscitating with honey.

The length of the proboscis varies between species, one of the longest being in the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum).

The proboscis is normally folded under the bee in flight, as shown here.

The honey bee's tongue is very similar to that of the bumblebee but I believe solitary bees' tongues are a bit different.


  1. Lovely photos of bee tongues!
    It is now recommended that you only feed bumblebees with a sugar-water mix, rather than using honey; I believe this is to reduce the risks of passing honeybee pathogens (particularly foreign ones) on to bumblebees.
    Keep up the great bee photos,

    1. The honey is from my own bees Louise so it is OK. Bought honey may contain spores from American foul brood and so should be avoided, although I'm not sure bumblebees can catch it.

    2. There ought - at minimum - to be a note by the photos about the honey being from your own, known healthy, bees and NOT from imported honey.
      Bumblebees can certainly spread a number of honeybee diseases (Google 'Trojan Hives' for the paper - where everything is called a 'parasite').
      Simple advice for the general public is to preferentially feed white sugar in water.
      Congratulations on the fantastic photos.

  2. I suspect it is the pathogens and other things we don't yet know about that people are worried about.