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What are mites and why do some bumblebees have them?

Mites are small animals which are related to spiders and ticks. Most bumblebees have little mites clinging to their bodies. Most of the time, the mites are difficult to see, but sometimes they can cover large parts of the bumblebee’s body.

A Red-tailed bumblebee covered in mites.

The good news is that most of the mites that live with bumblebees are harmless to them and are simply clinging to the bumblebee so that they can be transported to new nests.

When in the nest, the mites usually feed on wax, pollen, nest debris, and other small insects, and do not feed on the bumblebees. Then, when the mites reach a certain stage in their lifecycle, they cling to worker bumblebees, and are transported onto flowers. From these flowers, the mites attach to other visiting bees, and are transported to new nests.

Some types of mite, usually the ones we can’t see, can be more harmful. For example, one species, Locustacarus buchneri, lives in the respiratory system of queen bumblebees. This species lays up to 50 eggs and the young develop inside the queen’s body. It is not known if infections like these definitely do harm the bees though.