Our visit to the Royal Bath and West Show last weekend included a visit to the bee and honey tent, where the finest our buzzing friends and their keepers have to offer was on show (and more importantly, available to taste)! Whilst there, we got chatting to the lovely people from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust whilst Roo checked out the ‘bumblearium’ – a temporary show home for some of our tubby black and yellow flying friends.
Did you know that in the last 80 years two species of bumblebee have actually become extinct in the UK? That the numbers of bumblebees have fallen so dramatically that several more species also face extinction? That without bumblebees we would be without one of our key pollinators for crops, fruit and other fresh produce? I had no idea about quite the extent of the problem either.
We are fortunate to have a lot of bumblebees at home this year. Our raspberry plants are alive with the sound of buzzing right now. What I hadn’t given any thought to though was what happens once the raspberry season is over or how I could help to keep our local bumblebee population thriving. Here are some facts and tips I have picked up since last weekend:
Five fascinating facts about bumblebees
- Only female bumblebees can sting – and only when they feel extremely threatened. Unlike a honey bee, using their sting does not kill them.
- Bumblebees don’t swarm. Male drones can sometimes be seen circling in groups around a nest. This is during mating time and they are waiting for the queen to come out.
- Bumblebees use a scent on their feet to signal to other bumblebees when they have already taken the nectar from a particular flower. This saves other bees energy in landing for nothing.
- Bumblebees use a technique called buzz pollination to extract pollen from flowers. They use their flight muscles to create a vibrating buzz action (and sound) as they approach a flower, causing deeply located pollen to be released through vibration for the bumblebee to collect!
- The hairy body of a bumblebee acts as a woolly coat and enables it to forage for food on chilly days too!
Why are bumblebees struggling to survive?
It’s not rocket science – bumblebees need pollen from flowering plants to feed themselves and their young. Unlike honey bees bumblebees only form small hives and don’t store pollen as honey, meaning they rely on what is available immediately.
Over the last century our economic development and move towards an urban and ever-growing population means that there are fewer habitats for our bumblebees. Amid farming pressures, meadows with their flowering wild plants have reduced hugely in area, land has been taken up for building on and gardens have often been transformed from grass and flowers to easy-maintenance gravel and concreted driveways.
Even where gardens are still green, grassy and full of flowers, gardeners often select showy plants such as begonias which actually have very little if any nectar value. Hedgerows and verges where wild pollen rich flowers still grow are often aggressively cut back or mown, in the name of neatness and order. It is no wonder really bumblebees are in decline.
What can we do to help?
Providing a habitat and food for bumblebees is essential and something most of us with a scrap of garden or window box or two can help with. Growing bumblebee friendly plants such as wild geraniums, salvia, flowering herbs and fruit trees and bushes will provide a vital food source. Making sure you have some of these plants during each season is also important. You can find an extensive list of bee friendly plants by season on the British Beekeeper Association website or try out the plant finder on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website.
Think you’ve got it sorted already? Test yourself with the Bee Kind tool , see how well your garden scores and get tailored suggestions for more bumblebee friendly plants to grow. I gave it a whirl for my garden and discovered that despite my bumblebees and a good selection of plants, I’m still a fair way off the optimal score for my size garden! I’d better get planting some more alliums, scabious and pussy willow!
Another piece of advice for wildlife gardening in general is not to be too tidy! Fallen leaves and undisturbed bottoms of hedges make great places for bumblebees to both hibernate overwinter and build nests. If you’re fortunate enough to have bumblebees nesting in your shed (!) then remember that they are not aggressive and if you need to, try and find them an easier alternative exit if their current one is causing a nuisance.
Educating our children as ever is also another important way to help out. Bumblebees make a pretty fascinating study and their non-aggressive nature makes them easy and safe for kids to observe carefully and all kids will enjoy getting grubby with a spot of hands on wildlife gardening! Budding photographers can send in their bumblebee pictures to BeeWatch to help map out the different species across the country and making a bumblebee nest box is a good rainy day activity for bored children.
You can also support the Bumblebee Conservation Trust by donating to them directly or volunteering – find out more on their website.
As for me – I’m off to do a bit more garden planning, given I now have a perfectly legitimate excuse to go plant shopping! I’ll share with you our attempts at making a bumblebee nest box soon and hope to be able to report back that our garden bumblebees are still in good shape this time next year.