I have fond memories of finding, then observing a bumblebee nest as a
child. However, before I tell you all about that, as well as about
bumblebee nests in general, I should perhaps say:
- if you have found a nest and don’t know what to do about it (or how to move it if necessary - which, given that nests only last a season, it rarely is),
- if you want to know how to make artificial nest sites,
then see the links below.
However, I'd encourage you first to have a quick read of this page for some general information and background.
Anyway, back to that childhood discovery........
I remember it very clearly – so much so, that I can even name the species, even though it happened many years ago. It was the nest of a white-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum), and I suspect a queen in the early stages of establishing her colony.
The nest had been made at the base of our privet hedge in what appeared to be a mouse hole. I now know this is common among a number of species – many like to use abandoned rodent holes.
They are ideal, in that they consist of a ready-made, underground shelter, complete with nest lining.
Bumblebees are obviously restricted when it comes to gathering their own nest material, although some species are able to rake up quantities of moss in order to cover their nests which they make above ground (this is a particular preference of the carder species, including the rare Bombus sylvarum - the shrill carder). However, the 'ingredients' for the nest: the mosses, old grass, perhaps a bit of old fur, needs to be in the right place.
So how do bumblebees go about locating and setting up nests?
Nests are established by an impregnated queen after she has emerged from
hibernation and has refuelled herself with nectar and pollen. The
nectar will provide her with much needed energy, whilst the pollen will
help her ovaries to develop. Once she has recovered from her winter
snooze, she’ll go looking for suitable nest sites.
You can tell when queens are prospecting for nest sites: you may see them flying close to the ground, sometimes in a zig-zag pattern, seeking out a suitable spot. They may hesitate or land at shady spots in the garden, or beneath the shed. Some species are happy to nest higher up, and so you may see them hovering around the windows of your house. Again, they are attracted to the shade, in case it signals a ready-made cavity where there might be a suitable site for a nest.
For a variety of reasons, bumblebees have suffered greatly because of
habitat destruction. Not only have they lost valuable foraging sites,
they have lost nesting sites too. How come?
1. Lack Of Hedgerows
Modern farming practices have resulted in the grubbing up of many traditional, mixed hedgerows. The base of hedgerows provide ideal places for small rodents and voles to make their nests. Fewer hedgerows means fewer small mammals, and so fewer available nest sites.
2. Loss Of Wildflower Landscapes
Again, for the sake of modern farming practices or for the sake of building and road development, many of the kinds of landscapes providing tussocky grasses (with abundance of flower foraging sources) that provide suitable spots for surface nesting species, have been lost. For example, in the UK, an astonishing 98% of such landscape has disappeared, along with important bumblebee habitat. Hence, meadows and grasslands have been lost to the detriment of many bumblebee species.
3. Destruction Of Woodlands
Woodlands, again because they provide a rich diversity of flora and fauna, provide great habitats. However, it is well known that we have lost many of our woodlands, again for the sake of ‘development’.
The lack of available nest sites has definitely had a very negative
impact on populations of bumblebees. Some species however, have been
able to adapt somewhat, through necessity, whilst for others this has
not been possible.
It’s important to note that fewer than half of colonies are successful, and nest disturbance is a significant factor, whether through human activity or predators.
However, we humans can help, by creating bee-friendly gardens, and providing suitable bumblebee nest sites in our gardens. We will benefit greatly when they pollinate our plants (especially our soft fruits, tomatoes and beans). They are very docile and will only rarely sting if they feel very threatened.
In particular, we can:
In the meantime, given the challenges facing bumblebees, I think it's time bumblebees and their nests had legal protection. Read more here.
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