Can Bumblebees Fly in the Rain?


Wet Bumblebee After Rain

Who doesn’t love enjoying a warm summer afternoon relaxing to the soft sound of buzzing bumblebees? This captivating hum really is the soundtrack to summer. Bumblebees typically thrive in warmer weather. But if you’ve ever encountered one of these furry, pudgy insects on a rainy day, you might wonder how they fare in the rain.

Can bumble bees fly in the rain? Bumblebees can fly in the rain, but it’s difficult and potentially dangerous for them without the sun for navigation. While they have a special covering on their bodies that protects them from water, large raindrops can damage their wings.

From simply observing the size of the bumblebee’s tiny wings compared to their plump, hairy bodies, it would be assumed impossible that these important pollinators could take flight in unfavorable weather conditions. It’s fascinating to discover just how bumblebees manage to achieve lift-off. 

How Do Bumblebees Fly?

With such large bodies and small wings, it seems to be impossible that bumble bees could achieve lift and remain in the air. The answer can be summed up in one word—efficiency.

Encased in the large body of a bumblebee is a grand chest muscle that powers the movement of the bumblebee’s wings over 200 beats per second. Each flap of a bumble bee’s wing creates low-pressure pockets, and as air is pulled down, the bumblebee is lifted up. 

But that’s not enough to keep the insect in the air. On each downstroke, the bumblebee actually rotates its wings, pulling more air down, doubling the amount of lift. So, the movement of a bumble bee’s wings in flight is really more like a helicopter than an airplane; this enables them to hover over a flower to collect nectar.

In fact, bumblebee flight creates such little drag and is so efficient that researchers are fascinated and are attempting to replicate their flights’ mechanics for military use.

We have an article “How Do Bees Fly?” which has a super slow-motion video of bees flying. It is fascinating.

How Do Bees Know Where They’re Going?

Similar to the way humans use a compass, bumblebees use the sun to navigate their travel to and from the nest and foraging for food sources. Since the sun is a fixed reference point, bumblebees can keep a constant angle between the sun and their line of flight to find their way to food and back to the colony. 

We have a detailed article about how honey bees see. Bumblebees are very similar. It is really their superpower.

Bumblebee Flight Conditions

Bumblebees are highly sophisticated and are created to tolerate varying temperatures and weather conditions. In saying this, you may notice they are rarely seen during periods of extreme cold or extreme heat.

Cold Temperatures

Bumblebees are more adapted to colder temperatures than other varieties of bees and are known to survive longer than other species as winter approaches.

This ability is thanks, in part, to their hairy bodies providing some insulation from colder air. They can also avert the cold by making a shivering motion with their flying muscles to raise their body temperatures. 

According to bumblebee.org, bumblebees can fly at temperatures as low as they cannot fly in temperatures below 50 °F (10 °C) however they can not take off until their flight muscles are above 86 °F (30 °C). During the cold snaps of late spring and early fall, bumblebees will remain in the nest and wait for it to warm up before resuming their routine. 

It’s highly uncommon for bumblebees to be out during winter months; this is because bumblebees have an annual life cycle, meaning all of the members of the colony die as winter approaches except for the young queens. 

These future female rulers hibernate during the coldest months when their nestmates have died and emerge in early spring on a mission to find a location for the next colony. If you see a bumblebee zig-zagging about on a chilly early spring day, it’s likely she’s a queen looking for food or a spot to build her nest.

Bumblebees and Snow

Since snow usually occurs during winter months when queens are hibernating underground, and the others from their original colonies have perished, bumblebees would not likely encounter snow. Bumblebees will stay in their warm underground winter homes until outside spring temperatures reach about 55 °F (12.8 °C).

Hot Temperatures

Bumblebees flourish in the warmer seasons however they don’t enjoy extreme heat. During hot days, some of the worker bees in the colony will hover over the nest to keep it cool, sort of like a bumblebee ceiling fan cooling the nest. When temperatures top 100 °F (37.7 °C), they will stop working to keep from overheating. If their nest is in direct sun on extremely hot days, they will swarm to seek relief in a shady place. 

High Altitudes

Bumblebees have been spotted in altitudes over 29,000 feet, where the air pressure is very low, and there is little oxygen to fuel their flight muscles. Once again, their knack for efficiency helps them persevere.

To fly in high altitudes, bumblebees alter the angle of their wing movement, creating a bigger arc; this enables them to push more air down with every flap of their wings to fly in these lofty places.

Can Bumblebees Survive in the Rain? 

If you see a bee on a rainy day, it’s probably a bumblebee. They can survive in the rain because their hairy bodies help them shake off water to stay warm. However, in a heavy downpour or severe storm, a bumblebee is at risk of being injured or killed.

Heavy rain can damage their wings or worse, they are at risk of being stranded in pooling water causing them to drown. Because of this danger, bumblebees will typically not stray too far from the nest in wet weather.

Should You Rescue a Stranded Bumblebee?

Bumblebees can get stranded in the rain when they’ve strayed too far from the nest and get cold or run out of energy. Since bumblebees are very docile, you can offer assistance to one in need of some help. 

  • If the bumblebee seems to be struggling, the best thing you can do is slide a piece of paper under it and place it on the nearest flower. Sometimes they are just disoriented with the lack of sunlight while it’s raining.
  • If the bumblebee is motionless but still alive, it could just be exhausted. You can safely handle it by gently lifting it on a piece of paper. To assist the bee, offer it a capful of sugar water (50/50). For more information on feeding stranded bumblebees, check out this article we have about feeding bumblebees.

Is Climate Change Endangering Bumblebees?

Bumblebees are in danger of extinction, with climate change potentially a contributing factor. According to Douglas Main’s article in National Geographic, you are “nearly 50 percent less likely to see a bumblebee in any given area than you were prior to 1974.” 

Bumblebees are cleverly equipped to survive the heat and cold better than many of their bee cousins. However, they aren’t able to endure the extreme temperature changes, extended periods of extreme heat, and increased occurrences of severe weather that have become the norm in recent years.

The future of these amazing insects depends on the actions of humans to combat the changes in our climate and investigate further through research on how we can grow bumblebee colonies. 

The Wrap Up

Bumblebees have fascinated humankind for ages. Their natural efficiency in flight and methods to adapt to their environment enable them to be active long into the changing seasons and in various conditions.

Bumblebees are not only the inspiration for scientific and military research, but they’re also even the subject of one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of classical music, Flight of the Bumblebee (click to listen). The next time you see a bumblebee, consider yourself lucky to share a little moment with one of these amazing insects. 

If you have found this article interesting, I recommend checking out a couple of other articles we have written. The first is an in-depth comparison between bumblebees, carpenter bees, and honey bees. The article is called, Carpenter Bees Vs Bumblebees Vs Honey Bees.

The second may give you some insight as to why you see bumblebees bumping into windows around your house. This article is called, Why Do Bumblebees Fly Into Windows?

References: 

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2014/02/05/3937814.htm

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/367/6478/685

https://savebees.org/how-to-help-revive-a-cold-or-wet-bee/

https://www.buzzaboutbees.net/found-a-bee.html

https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/23245/20190709/bees-are-the-most-important-living-being-on-earth.htm

https://www.livescience.com/57509-bumblebee-facts.html

https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Bumblebee

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