By Dave Goulson, University of Sussex
Bumblebees are among the intellectual giants of the insect world. They learn the locations of landmarks relative to their nest, and are able to navigate accurately many miles across the landscape. They quickly learn which flowers are the most rewarding, and how best to collect the rewards swiftly, using the least energy. They even use the faint smell of previous bee visitors to tell them which flowers are likely to have been emptied, and avoid them in favour of those with a full tank.
Bumblebees communicate through pheromones, which the queen uses to communicate within the nest, and through sounds caused by their wings, which workers can use to recruit more foragers and to signal danger. They can even learn by watching each other which flowers are the most rewarding. They are amazing and important creatures, for they pollinate numerous wildflowers and many crops such as tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries and runner beans.
But action heroes, they are not. A recent video shows what the photographer believes to be a bumblebee diving in to rescue a fellow bee caught in a web, stinging the attacking spider in the process. This is unintentionally misleading, and not what it seems.
Within the nest, bumblebees can and will attack and repel invaders, but they would never come to the aid of another bee away from the nest. Away from the nest the workers single-mindedly pursue the solitary endeavour of finding flowers and collecting food as swiftly as possible. If any of them run into trouble then they are on their own.
In the video, the first bee is struggling to escape from a spider’s web on a windowsill. Clearly, the bee has become trapped indoors and while bashing into the windowpane in trying to escape has become entangled in the spider’s web. The spider is nervously edging closer, but this is a big and energetic bee, prey that looks far too big for it.
Dramatically, a second bee that must also have got trapped in the house then comes crashing in, falls on its back and thrashes around a bit. As the second bee flails around on its back, it looks in one frame as if it stings the spider.
In fact, what one can see is the rear leg of the bee which happens to line up with the tip of the abdomen for a moment. It is too long and thick for a bee sting. The spider runs away, and the bees break free (as bumblebees usually do from spider’s webs).
So, sorry, this is not a noble, brave act, much as I might like it to be. This is just two clumsy bees trying to find their way home.
Dave Goulson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.