The name bumblebee doesn't refer to a single species of bee, but to the bees of the genus Bombus. The clumsy, bumbling flight of the bumblebee gave the bees their common name. These large bees are covered in black and white hairs. Bumblebees can sting, but rarely do. Bumblebees are social insects whose colonies consist of a queen bee and worker bees. They are very important to the pollination of the world's plants.
Bumblebees have very fuzzy coats on their bodies and legs. These coats allow them to pick up pollen from one plant and transfer it to another easily -- in fact, bumblebees can transfer more pollen with their coats than honey bees. The bumblebee's coat is made up of thick hair that is branched. The coat keeps the bee warm, allowing it to go out on days when honeybees are too cold to leave the hive.
Bumblebees have long tongues that are feathery at the end, allowing them to collect lots of nectar. While the bumblebee is flying, it keeps its tongue folded up inside a sheath made from its upper jaw and palp. The tongue of one species of bumblebee, Bombus hortorum, is 12 mm long. The bumblebee's long tongue helps it feed on plants such as beans and peas, which have flowers that are shaped in such a way that only animals with long tongues can reach their nectar.
Bumblebees can perform a type of pollination called buzz pollination. Bumblebees vibrate when they fly, so much that if they are near a flower's anthers -- which hold pollen -- the pollen will shake loose. The pollen can either hitch a ride to another flower on the bumblebee's body or fall onto another flower below it. Either way, buzz pollination makes bumblebees efficient pollinators of tomatoes, kiwi and berries.
Bees typically hibernate throughout the winter. Bumblebees get a head start on other bees by being one of the first bee species to emerge from hibernation every spring. Some bumblebees continue to forage for nectar until November; as a result, they are important pollinators of fall and winter crops. In areas where the climate is fairly mild and enough plants are around to sustain them, you can sometimes see bumblebees throughout the winter.
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