Updated: 1st March 2021
I have had several queries regarding bumble bee nests in bird nest boxes. Very often this will be the nest of the Tree Bumble bee, Bombus hypnorum, but other species will also make their nest in bird boxes too, such as Bombus lapidarius.
If you have a bumble bee nest in your bird box, please remember the nest is temporary and will naturally decline and become inactive at the end of the season.
Here is an example of a query I received recently:
Although I had no photographs, I suspect this was the Bombus hypnorum, which are quite visibly active around their nests as the colony grows.
Female workers can be quite protective of the nests, deliberately investigating outside disturbance in case of ‘threat’ which they may sense through vibrations – perhaps the moving door of the shed in this case.
It’s possible this species can sting, and so if you spot a Bombus hypnorum nest in your bird box, the easiest thing for you to do, is decide what you need the night before, and then at night or late in the evening, when the bees are in their nest, put on protective clothing, and quickly pop something over the entrance of the nest box to stop bees coming out - perhaps a bag or piece of cloth.
Try to be as quiet and efficient as possible so as not to disturb them too much. Then enter the shed and remove the items you need, lock up the shed, and remove the covering from the nest box.
You may find it easier to simply take the opportunity to place your main tools
etc, temporarily in a different storage place, say in the garage, the
greenhouse, the boot of your car, or a neighbour's shed.
It’s common to see males patrolling nest sites (males cannot sting) - in fact it is often at this point that members of the public first realise they have a bee nest. The bees are typically seen flying around the entrance of the nest, and this is occasionally thought to be a swarm, although it's actually a group of males engaged in nest surveillance (sometimes referred to as a ‘drone cloud’), without actually entering the nest.
They are waiting
to pounce on and mate with new queens as they emerge from the nest, and if you
are happy to get fairly close, you may even be lucky enough to witness the
mating activity, as the bees temporarily appear to fall from the air as if in a
fight. You may at this point see the
bees mating on the ground, or amongst the vegetation.
Firstly, please note that although some people find a Bombus hypnorum nest a little intimidating, if left alone, you will probably find them to be not too much trouble.
As I write, our neighbour has a Tree bumble bee nest in her blue tit box on the side of a garden shed. She has 2 grown children and a dog. The bees are left alone, and no-one is bothered by the bees. Her garden (like ours) is not very large).
We also have a Tree bumble bee nest in our compost heap, and also have a dog. It causes no problems, although we were going to move the compost heap, but that will now be delayed, and we have stopped using the composter for a while. I have been able to potter about, not bothered by the bees. Below is a film of the activity around the nest of our compost heap.
It is possible to remove the nest if in a bird box, however,
I think most people would find this more stressful than the idea I describe
above (removing needed items at night the day before required), and implementing the idea above may be easier and more practical.
It's also a bit tricky, as moving the nest would have to be done at night, when the colony is back in its nest.
However, if you would like to go down this route, first
decide where you are going to put the nest box - preferably in a similar
location, not too far away, and choose a structure that will not be used by
humans. Ensure the nest box will be facing
the same direction. Have tools handy to fix the nest to a new location.
Remove trip hazards.
Wear protective clothing and cover the hole to prevent bees escaping. Remove the bird box from the shed (- consider first - can this be done easily?), and take it straight away to the new location and fix it firmly in place. The disturbance will alert the bees. Once the nest box is secure, remove the cover from the hole. Be careful!
As stated above, it will probably be easier to leave the bees alone. If there is anything you need to fetch - say from a shed, follow the advice above.
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