Bumblebee tongue and mouthparts

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The tongue and mouthparts


The bumblebee has a long, reddish-coloured tongue that is hairy at the end so is good for soaking up nectar (see above and below).

cloe up of bumblebee tongue

When the bumblebee is flying the tongue is folded under its head and body inside a horny sheath formed by the palps and maxillae. In the drawing below and the photographs left and below the tongue itself is the long thing in the middle, the two outer parts on each side form the sheath, they are called the palp and the maxilla.

bumblebee tongue
Bumblebee tongue and sheath.

tip of a bumblebee tongue
above the tip of a bumblebee tongue showing the hairy/feathery end

Taste and smell in bumblebees

The tongue and mouthparts are covered in tiny hairs and these hairs have pores in them. Molecules pass through these pores and stick to receptor sites on sensory cells. This is how the bee tastes and smells. The main concentration of these hairs are on the antenna and mouthparts. In the the photograph below left shows the antennae, which are black, then in the middle the tongue, palps and maxillae.

Bumblebee tongue lengths

In the UK Bombus hortorum (see the photograph below) has the longest tongue which can reach just over 2 cm when fully stretched. When the bumblebee drinks nectar the sheath is moved so it is facing the entrance of the flower. The bumblebee then moves towards the nectar and the tongue itself shoots in and out soaking up the nectar.

Average tongue lengths measured from foraging bumblebee workers.

Tongue length mm
Bombus hortorum
Bombus lapidarius
Bombus pascuorum
Bombus pratorum
Bombus terrestris/lucorum

In the table of tongue lengths above, the measurements were taken from live workers foraging. The bumblebee tongue is an elastic organ, when dissected and measured the length will be longer than those in the table. A pipette marked in millimetres and filled with a water/honey solution was offered to workers. The meniscus was moved up to see how far they would extend their tongue to reach the mixture. This work was done many years ago. Now I would advise a water/sugar mixture to avoid spreading disease.

If you look up at a flower against the sunlight while a bumblebee is drinking you can just see the tongue through the flower. If you want to get a better look you can try feeding them with a solution of honey or sugar and water in a plastic pipette. Using a plastic pipette like this is also a good way to measure the length of the tongue.

worker of terrestris/lucorm with tongue extended into flower

Above a Bombus terrestris or lucorum worker has her tongue in the nectary of a flower and is drinking the nectar. Below is a Bombus pascuorum queen with her tongue sheath extended out in front. Normally the sheath is folded under the body and only moved forwards to drink nectar.

Bombus pascuorum

Below is a Bombus hortorum (Garden bumblebee) worker drinking nectar from a lavender flower. Lavender has a fairly deep corolla before the nectary is reached, and most bumblebee would have to stick their head right into the flower to reach the nectar, but hortorum has such a long tongue that she can easily reach the nectar without even using the full length of her tongue.

Bombus hortorum, Garden bumblebee worker on lavender

Bombus hortorum worker's mandibles, bumblebee worker's jaw

Bees drilling holes in wood

I get many e mails from people telling me bumblebees are drilling holes in the wood of their house/shed etc. the insects doing this are usually carpenter bees, not bumblebees. The mouthparts of a bumblebee are not strong enough to drill holes in wood, nor can they bite with any strength. This can be seen in the photograph on the right showing the mandibles (jaws) of a worker bumblebee.

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