Brainy Bumble Bees

Bumble bee visiting jewelweed

Bumble bee visiting jewelweed. © Beatriz Moisset

Some of your garden visitors are undeniably clever. Raccoons and squirrels come immediately to mind. But, bumble bees? How could pinheaded insects be capable of any intelligence? Those who study insects tell us that some are capable of remembering things and, even more amazingly, of learning new things and acting accordingly.

The one that gained a reputation as the Einstein of the insect world is the honey bee. Books have been written about its cleverness and the way it communicates with her colony’s teammates. Other members of the six legged crowd also show surprising signs of memory and intelligence. Bumble bees, for instance, which are  close relatives of honey bees, and also live in colonies composed of a queen and workers, are not far behind them.

If you enjoy spending some time looking at the visitors to your flowers, you may have a chance to see some examples of their braininess.

Common bumble bee, a frequent flower visitor © Beatriz Moisset

Common bumble bee, a daily flower visitor
© Beatriz Moisset

Perhaps, one morning you step into your garden, coffee cup in hand, and see a bumble bee on your flowers. The scene looks familiar; you have noticed it several times before. Could it be the very same bumble bee? There is a good chance you are correct. She, and it is usually a she, is good at memorizing the best business locations—the bushes or clusters of plants with abundant flowers and plenty of valuable resources. She is probably guided by a combination of clues to recognize the area: landmarks, the position of the sun, smells, perhaps even the magnetic field of the earth. Thus your friendly garden visitor develops a daily route; and even memorizes the timing of blooming, morning or afternoon to show up right on schedule.

Another behavior worth watching is their routine when visiting difficult flowers. I love to see them going inside a jewelweed and am always amazed at the speed with which they proceed. I wish they were a little slower and allowed me to take a few pictures. Learning how to deal with complicated flowers takes practice. A naïve bumble bee may refine her technique with time and the more complicated the flower, the more practice is required.

Immature turtlehead flower. It doesn't allow the visitor © Beatriz Moisset

Immature turtlehead flower. Visitors not welcomed yet
© Beatriz Moisset

If you have turtleheads blooming in your garden, you are in for a treat. One day I was fortunate enough to observe an inexperienced bumble bee and its first clumsy attempts. The first flower it approached was probably not ready to be pollinated, so it held its jaws tightly clenched. This novice refused to take no for an answer and managed to get her head inside, but nothing else. When it finally gave up and visited a more mature flower she had no trouble diving into it. There was still another lesson to be learned when she tried to get out. Backing up didn’t work. She finally made a U-turn and came out head first. After a few more flowers she had become a pro, not wasting time on immature flowers and making a U-turn every time without further hesitation.

Bumble bee leaving the flower head first © Beatriz Moisset

Bumble bee exiting the flower head first
© Beatriz Moisset

Researchers resort to interesting methods to unravel the mysteries of bumble bee behavior. For instance, they glue little tags of different colors to their backs so they can track down the activities of each individual. They test their ability to recognize flowers by offering them artificial flowers of different colors or different aromas; and filling only certain ones with nectar. The student bees learn to choose the flower of the right color or scent and bypass all others.

Enjoy your garden pollinators next season and see if you can recognize these behaviors and perhaps observe new ones.

More on Bumble Bees:
Bumble Bees, Panda Bears of the Insect World
Bumble Bees: It is a Jungle Out There
The Life Cycle of a Bumble Bee and its Colony


© 2014, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Marilyn says

    It seems that nearly every other day I hear about some animal or other that is far smarter than anyone supposed. So I am not surprised to learn that the bumble bee has a lot more going on than was suspected. The film “Microcosmos” forever changed my attitude about insects. So much killing is completely unnecessary, and this is especially true when it comes to insects. But I believe the more thinking people learn, as with this article the less likely they will be to grab the bug spray.

  2. Pauline Horn says

    I have gradually gotten into native, chemical free gardening, and the resulting activity, particularly pollinator activity is a joy to observe. At the appropriate time I love watching bumblebees crawl in and out of turtle head, it seems like a lot of work, but it must be worth it! Occasionally, I find males sleeping in the blooms early in the morning! It’s also gratifying to see how all the pollinators allow me into their world, flying around me, occasionally landing on me, without being aggressive. I really think most people get stung because they flail their arms at the bees or wasps! At any rate a natural garden is so much more interesting and gratifying, and watching the interactions is wonderful.

    • Marilyn says

      I think you are right about people flailing their arms. I don’t bother stinging insects, and so far they don’t bother me. We have bees come to the edge of our bird bath and sit there. When I go to refill it, I am always careful not to disturb them anymore than necessary. I talk to them and tell them I’m bringing more water. I read somewhere that you can fill a container with gravel and put some water in it, for bees. I tried that, but they still preferred the bird bath.

  3. Corner Garden Sue says

    I enjoyed this post. I don’t have any turtleheads, but do have a number of native plants, and do not use chemicals. I enjoy seeing a number of kinds of bees and wasps, that let me get close to take their photos. Every once in awhile, one will fly at me, but stop a couple feet away, then fly off. When that happens, I take that as a hint to go somewhere else. Like Pauline, I have seen bees sleeping on blooms.

    I am so ready for spring, and a new season with the plants and critters!
    Corner Garden Sue recently posted..Looking Back to the First Couple Weeks Of June, 2013

    • Pauline Horn says

      I don’t think the bees who fly at you and then fly away are telling you to back of, I think they are just checking to see if you are a flower. Once they establish that you don’t have any food for them, they look elsewhere.

      • Corner Garden Sue says

        I never thought of that, Pauline. I like that reason for it. Wasps do it more than bees, though. Maybe it’s the same reason.
        Corner Garden Sue recently posted..Looking Back to the First Couple Weeks Of June, 2013

  4. Linda Vaughn says

    I love articles like this and the comments from people who validate how I feel. So many times I have told people not to be afraid of or swat at bees. I leave two of our three acres unmowed and I get beautiful stuff that bees and birds love. I often stop the mower alongside the wilderness and watch them. Beautiful. To keep the wasps off my hummingbird feeder, I put a shallow bowl of sugar water a few feet away from the feeder for the wasps. People look at me like I am crazy when I tell them how to keep wasps off their hummer feeders. I think all the creatures in Nature can be communicated with….with respect and kindness. I have not been stung yet !



  1. Brainy Bumble Bees | Planting & Landscape D... says:

    […] Bumble bees use their brains to remember and to learn new tasks when pollinating flowers. We love hearing from you!  […]


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