Bzzzzzing Around

Discover the delightful world of bumblebees this spring with expert guidance from Wendy Carter, Communications Manager at Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.

 

Like many people, I’ve harboured a soft spot for the humble bumblebee ever since I was a little girl. Not only do these hardworking creatures do a vital job of pollinating our flowers and food crops but they look adorable, complete with their tiny furry jackets. Take time to watch them and you’ll see that they are always busy, foraging for nectar and pollen as they ‘bumble’ from flower to flower. If the morning chorus is the song of spring, the gentle bzzzzzing of bumblebees must be the soundtrack of summer.

 

There are over 20,000 species of bee worldwide, which can be divided into two main types; social and solitary. Social bees are the ones we’re all familiar with - large, round bumblebees and the smaller, delicately striped, honey bees.

 

Bumblebees are insects of temperate climates - the dense furry jumpers that distinguish them literally keep them cosy in colder temperatures, enabling them to be constantly active, even in dull conditions.

 

In the UK, there are 25 species of bumblebee. Many are only found in specific habitats such as on moorland or in coastal areas and only six or seven species are widespread and regularly visit gardens. Six of these species are 'cuckoo' bumblebees which mimic some of the others.

 

Being ‘social,’ bumblebees live in small communities of up to 200-300. Colonies are mostly composed of female workers who are ruled by the queen, upon whom they are entirely dependent.

 

In the last 30 years, two species of bumblebee have become extinct in this country and many more have suffered a marked decline but nurturing them is something we can all do in our gardens.

 

Keep it in the family

Before we look at the various types of bumblebees, it’s useful to understand their life cycle. The large queen bee hibernates during winter, after digging into well-drained soil and excavating a small chamber for herself. Thanks to that warm furry coat she can survive temperatures as low as -19C.

 

As spring arrives, the queen wakes up, digs her way out of the chamber and heads off to feed, which is why it’s important to have nectar-rich flowers blooming in your garden early in the year. She will hunt for suitable nesting places - where this might be depends on the species - but it could be underground, at the base of a tussock or in a bird box.

 

Once she’s identified a suitable location, the queen builds up stores of pollen and nectar in wax cells in preparation for her new family, then retreats into the nest for good. From this point on her life's work is to lay eggs and attend to her family; she will never see the light of day again.

 

This means the bumblebees you see from late spring to late summer are usually the smaller female workers collecting pollen to feed the growing colony. The first eggs to emerge are all female workers and it’s only later, when the colony is sizeable, that the larger males and new queens are born. The two sexes then mate and the cycle begins again.

 

As always in nature, there is an exception in the form of cuckoo bumblebees…females who will steal a colony from another queen, lay their own eggs and enslave the original females to raise the cuckoo eggs.

 

The ‘Big 7’

Not all 25 species of bumblebee are found in Worcestershire. Great yellow bumblebees, for example, are now confined to a few places in the north of Scotland despite once being widespread across the whole of the UK. In and around your garden, you’re most likely to come across what the Bumblebee Conservation Trust call the ‘Big 7’: buff-tailed, white-tailed, redtailed, early, garden, tree and common carder bumblebees.

 

So, how can you tell one from another? It can be confusing, especially when they’re nestled tightly in a flower, but the key things to look for are the face, the tail and the markings on the thorax, which is the middle section between the head and the abdomen, where the two pairs of wings and six legs are found.

 

Spring is the ideal time to observe them before their colours fade and they become more ragged. Fortunately, similar-looking species of bees are rarely seen in south Worcestershire gardens so once identified you’re unlikely to mistake one for another.

 

Buff-tailed & white-tailed

Both buff-tailed and white-tailed bumblebees have a single yellow band on the thorax - it’s more orangey in buff-tailed bees and more yellowy in white-tailed. It’s pretty easy to spot these bees because their colours are vibrant and the queen buff-tailed is one of our largest and most conspicuous bees.

 

Female workers can’t be identified at a glance but the boys are easier; buff-tailed males have black facial hairs whereas the white-tailed boys have a shock of yellow facial hair.

 

Red-tailed bumblebees

Red-tailed bumblebees are just that! The queens and females are all black with a red tail but the males have yellow stripes on their thorax and the cutest moustache of bright yellow hairs. Like bufftailed, red–tailed bumblebee queens are among the largest of the species.

 

Tree bumblebees

One of the easiest bees to identify is a recent invader, the tree bumblebee. These bright bumbles arrived naturally from Europe in 2001 and have spread rapidly. Easily identified by their ginger thorax, black abdomen and a bright white tail, these are the bees that I receive most phone calls about in the summer.

 

Primarily a woodland species, they’d ordinarily nest in holes in trees…but they’ve rapidly learnt that garden bird boxes and roof spaces are also perfect for their purposes.

 

The good news is that they don’t cause any damage so if you do notice that you’ve got a nest, don’t panic! They won’t re-use the same nest twice and by the time you find them, the colony will probably be two-thirds over (most people only spot them when the males gather outside the nest to wait for the new queens to emerge).

 

Garden bumblebees

Rather oddly I didn’t see any garden bumblebees at all last year; I hope these normally common bees are doing okay! As their name suggests, they are regularly found in gardens; they have longer tongues than some of the other species so expect to find them feeding on flowers which have the nectar buried deep in their throats such as foxgloves, penstemon, honeysuckle and delphiniums. The key to identifying garden bumblebees is that queens, female workers and males all have a yellow-blackyellow pattern on their thorax; have a really close look and you’ll see that they also have long faces.

 

Early bumblebees

Early bumblebees conform to the more ‘traditional’ look of a bumblebee with their black and yellow stripes. They’re simple to identify – they’re small, don’t usually fly in late summer and their black and yellow pattern is topped off with a pinkish-red tail. At a glance, the males look like red-tailed bumblebee males but they’re much smaller and have more yellow across their whole body, not just their thorax.

 

Common carder bees

If you spy a gingery or brown bumblebee without any stripes, you’ve found a common carder bee.

 

These queens emerge quite early in spring and are common in gardens throughout the county. They vary in size (queens are the biggest) as well as colour – from bright ginger to faded orange; females often have creamy sides to the thorax while males tend to be more yellowy with extra facial hair.

 

Common carder bees build nests amongst tussocky grass; I spent a while last spring watching a queen exploring a tussock at the base of an apple tree in my garden before she eventually decided to head off elsewhere.

 

Flight of the bumblebee

Flying takes up a lot of energy and a third of bumblebee's daily calorie intake is spent foraging for more precious nectar and pollen. By repeatedly 'shivering' their muscles they help themselves to stay warm so they can remain active even on overcast days. So effective is this habit, and their insulation, that two species of bumblebees even survive north of the Arctic Circle!

 

Planting for bumblebees

The best way to help bumblebees is to make sure that your garden has nectar and pollen rich plants in flower for as many months of the year as possible, from snowdrops in spring through to lavender in summer and Michaelmas daisies in autumn.

 

Don’t forget that the various species of bumblebee have different lengths of tongue so try to include a variety of both tubular and open flowers.

 

Whether you’ve only got window boxes or patio tubs, a small flower bed or acres of space, you will succeed in attracting bees if you include some of the following plants:

• Allium

Aquilegia

Buddleia

Bugle

Catmint

Comfrey

Crocus

Echinacea

Foxglove

Globe thistle

Honeysuckle

Lavender

Lungwort

Mahonia

Nasturtium

Rosemary

Scabious

Sedum

Thyme

Grouping plants

It’s more efficient for bees if similar plants are grouped together so that they can easily move from flower to flower.

 

Try to plant in dense drifts because bees learn to recognise certain nectar-rich flowers and will revisit these repeatedly

 

If you’ve got the space, why not create a meadow area or just leave a bit of your garden to go wild? Tussocky grass in particular can be great for common carder bees.

 

How to rescue bees

If you find a dozy bee - perhaps it is cold or has been downed by heavy rain - you can help to perk it up by mixing a little sugar into some water. I’ve ‘rescued’ several bumbles by helping them onto my warm hand and holding a sugar-water mix in a teaspoon just in front of them.

 

Don’t worry too much about being stung; queens and female workers can sting but rarely do and usually only if they or their nest feel threatened.

 

However, if they look like they’re giving you a ‘high five’ with one of their feet, consider yourself warned that they’re not too happy and you should try a different approach!

 

 

Find out more:

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/gardening-factsheets

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/spotting-sheets

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/wildlife/species-a-z

 

 

WWT events include:

 

• Thur 3rd May 7.30pm

The Wildlife of British Woodlands by Paul Hobson. Lyttelton Rooms, Malvern, £2.50

 

• Sun 6th May, 10am-5pm

Tiddesley Wood Open Day, Pershore. £3.00 adults, £1.00 children

 

Wed 16th May, 6.00pm

Watch out Wednesdays – Pond-e -monium – What Lurks Beneath! Lower Smite Farm £2 per child

 

Wed 16th May, 7.30pm

Confessions of a Teenage Skull Collector by Ric Morris. Bishop Allenby Hall, Barbourne, Worcester. £2.50

 

Sun 10th June, 10am

Yomping from The Knapp and Papermill with Richard Cory. Donations.

 

Sat 16th June, 10am-4pm

Big Wild Weekend at Lower Smite Farm.

 

Wed 20th June 6pm-7.30pm

Mad About Minibeasts – Celebrate National Insect Week with Club WoW at Lower Smite Farm. £2 per child.

 

Sun 24th June

Butterfly Walk at Monkwood. £3 adults, £1.50 children. Booking essential 01905 620721

 

For full details of events visit www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk/whats-on

 

Helping wildlife this spring

Visit the FAQ pages on our website for answers to our most popular queries - from what to do with a baby bird to where to see bluebells to how to book an expert speaker for your group.

 

Did you know?

We can recycle mobile phones, ink cartridges, stamps, cameras, laptops, video cameras, electronic gaming devices, mp3 players, iPods etc. Simply drop them off at Lower Smite Farm, Smite Hill, Hindlip, near Droitwich, Worcestershire, WR3 8SZ during office hours or contact Becky on 01905 754919 or by emailing becky@worcestershirewildlife trust.org

 

For daily updates about wildlife around the county please follow us on twitter @WorcsWT

 

 

www.worcswildlifetrust.co.uk

Tel: 01905 754919

 

 

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