There is a reason why we often see bumblebees before we see honey bees in the early spring. It’s a matter of 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Bumblebees will fly when the air temperature is as low as 50°F. and sometimes lower. Honey bees cannot fly if it’s colder than 55°F.
Even though they can fly at 50°F., bumblebees cannot take off unless their flight muscles are above 86°F. and they must keep the temperature of their thorax between 86°F. and 104°F. In order to accomplish this, bumblebees uncouple their wing muscles so that the wings themselves do not move, and then use the muscles to shiver and raise their thorax temperature. (Photo: Tri-colored Bumblebee & Trailing Arbutus)
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If you examine plants that are still flowering this late in the season (such as asters, goldenrod and late-blooming turtlehead) early in the morning when it’s still quite cool or late in the day, many of the pollinators you see will be bumblebees, not honey bees. One reason for this is that they have different temperature tolerances for flight. You rarely see a honey bee when the temperature is below 57°F as they cannot fly when it is this cool. Bumblebees, however, are capable of flight when the air temperature is as low as 50°F.
Even so, bumblebees cannot take off unless their flight muscles are above 86°F; they maintain the temperature of their thorax (where wings and wing muscles are located) between 86°F and 104°F regardless of the ambient temperature. The way in which they raise the temperature of their thorax involves uncoupling their wing muscles so that the wings themselves do not move. They then use their wing muscles to shiver and raise the temperature of their thorax until it’s sufficiently warm enough for them to fly.
At rest a bumblebee’s body temperature will fall to that of its surroundings. If it is cool out, and the bumblebee wants to take flight, you can actually see its abdomen pumping to ventilate the flight muscles. An entomologist studying this phenomenon discovered that the rate of pumping can give an indication of the temperature of the bee. It ranges from around 1 pump per second when the bee is 86°F, to 6 pumps per second when it reaches 95°F.