All About The Bumblebee

Above:  Bombus pascuorum on Bee Balm (Bergamot)

The bumblebee is one of my favourite insects. They are charming, industrious, and a friend to gardeners......

When I was a small child, I also thought they looked quite cute and cuddly too! Clumsily, and in a somewhat - but not intentionally heavy-handed fashion, I tried to handle one.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how to approach such a creature, no idea about the wisdom of leaving them alone, and at that stage, I didn’t know they could sting!

Well of course, I was stung! As tolerant and docile as they are, I suppose being handled by a clumsy (if well-meaning) child, was just too much for it! I soon learned, and I continued to love them anyway.

Stinging by bumblebees is very, very rare. You are far more likely to hurt yourself at home or through falling over, than you are to be stung by one of them. Put it this way, I’ve been bumped 3 times in my car. I have only been stung once.

For many, these gorgeous little creatures hold a special place in our hearts. Who could imagine a summer without them, buzzing gently from flower to flower? I can spend hours watching them on the lavenders - like this one below - Bombus terrestris (the Buff-tailed Bumblebee).

But anyway, what’s the buzz about bumblebees?

Well firstly, all of the species belong to the genus Bombus and to the family Apidae.

There are social as well as cuckoo bumblebees (social parasites). Cuckoo species are regarded as parasites, whereby the female cuckoo kills the host queen and takes over the nest – although some research has found cuckoos living alongside their host, with both rearing offspring.

They have their fair share of natural predators too, but without a doubt, human activity is the biggest cause of problems faced by this important little pollinator.

We're still learning about plant pollination and bumblebees!

But we do know they are perfectly designed for plant pollination. As their furry, fat bodies enter flowers, much pollen is caught on their fluffy coats, and so is easily transferred from the male anthers of a flower, on to the female part of a flower, known as the stigma.

Any remaining pollen on their furry coats can be combed from their bodies, formed into a little ball, and stored in the bee’s pollen baskets – or corbicula, to be carried back to the nest.

Different species have different tongue lengths too, resulting in varied foraging preferences. All this means that some species are better adapted to pollinate certain plants than others.

Add this to the fact that they can ‘buzz pollinate’, and you begin to see why this insect is so important to both the environment and humans.

Without a doubt, they perform an important service as pollinators in our gardens, and increasingly in large scale food crop production such as soft fruits (like strawberries, cranberries), as well as pollinating beans, peas, wildflowers and many other types of plant life.

Being furry, and having evolved in the Himalayas, the bumblebee is also well adapted to comparatively cooler weather conditions. They generate heat by vibrating their flight muscles, hence performing a ‘warm up’ before venturing out during the cooler seasons, even when other insects are still in hibernation.

In the UK, bumblebees may appear in February or March, pollinating the likes of crocuses, rosemary and pussy willows.  However, they have also been seen out and about at Kew Gardens, London, in January!

Some species will provide a plant pollination service to our winter crops late into the year too. Bombus pascuorum, the Common Carder bumblebee (as seen at the top of the page), may even be around as late as November. To find out more about this topic, why not read my page about bumblebee pollination here.

In order for these sturdy little pollinators to thrive though, they need a good supply of nectar and pollen rich foods. Of course, we can all do our bit to help them during the cold winter months, when they are especially vulnerable, by providing year round flowering plants. You can certainly help bees generally by ensureing you have plenty of bee plants in your garden.

Bumblebees endangered or extinct in the UK and America

Worldwide there are about 250 known species. Unfortunately, relatively little attention has been paid to these most vital pollinators, in comparison with, say the honey bee, which has been studied extensively. We do know, however, that in the West particularly, worrying declines in populations are now being noticed.

In the UK, 3 species have become extinct. These are:

- Bombus subterraneous

- Bombus pomorum

- Bombus cullumanus

Of the remaining 24 species, 2 are critically endangered, and 10 are in very serious decline, which includes 6 Biodiversity Action Plan species.

Read more about British Bumblebees.

North America has 50 native species. Of which 4 species that were formerly common, have hit catastrophic declines, with two possibly on the brink of extinction. These 4 species are:

- Bombus affinis

- Bombus terricola

- Bombus franlini

-Bombus occidentalis

Worrying declines have been noted in a large number of other species, including:

- Bombus pensylvanicus

- Bombus fervidus

- Bombus sonorus

- Bombus californicus

Read about Bumblebees of North America.

You can read more about bee declines here.

Why should we be concerned about bumblebee decline?

Well what could the consequences be? Certainly loss of plant variety, and the knock on effect on the eco system. But what about food? Well here’s an interesting lesson from China:

In China, in valleys where bumblebees used to pollinate groves of pears, they have been driven out by pesticides. Efforts to bring in honey bee hives for pollination were not successful. These pear crops are now being pollinated by humans – literally, humans are now going up into the pear trees, to pollinate them by hand! Can you imagine the impact on world food if this problem became global?! If we lost our bumblebees (and of course, our other bees), we would be in serious difficulty, let’s not underestimate it! See my page about the general importance of bee pollination.

Unfortunately, there is relatively little research into the pollinating habits of different insects generally, the interdependence of these insects on plants, and ultimately, the wider environment. However, we do know that not all bees (or insects) pollinate all plants effectively - even if they take their nectar! We cannot simply believe that if one species dies out, something else will 'do its job' instead. Indeed, some common plants are pollinated by more than one type of bee (or insect) but that is certainly not the case with all.

Problems for bumblebees

  • Modern agricultural practices are a major problem. These practices have resulted in far fewer meadows and wild flower strips.
  • The impact of pesticides on bees is of tremendous concern too – particularly systemic and neonicotinoid pesticides. Independent evidence suggests these pesticides are responsible for honey bee deaths.
  • Some bumblebee species like to make their nests at the base of hedgerows.   Many hedgerows feature plants favoured by many types of bees, and not just bumblebees: brambles, hawthorn, honey suckle to name only a few. With the grubbing up of hedgerows, this has resulted in not only loss of foraging opportunities for bees, but also available nest sites. You can find out more about bumblebee nests here.

In the end, humans are harmed as well as wildlife.

Of course, there is much we can all do to help all bees, including the bumblebee - but we need to act QUICKLY. Why not check out my page giving 10 Simple Things YOU Can Do To Save The Bees.

There is very rarely a good reason to remove bumblebee nests.  They only last a season.

Read more

Bombus terrestris Life cycle
Discover more about the life cycle of this wonderful little pollinator.

bumblebee nest Useful Bee Nest Q&A
Found a bee nest? Read this useful Q&A.

Missing Bees
Learn about the problems facing our bees, and what we need to do about it.

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Book Review

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Gardening For Bees

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If you find a bedraggled bumblebee needing help, feed it sugar water, NOT honey.
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