Across Britain, we have about twenty-four different species of bumblebee. These fuzzy friends don’t just make honey – they pollinate our crops and flowers, playing a crucial role in producing the food we eat and plants we love. However, demand for increased food production has caused a change in the British landscape, and the loss of diversely populated wildflower fields puts a strain on the bees’ ability to collect pollen, and decreases the distance they can travel. When we rely on pollination for producing so much of our food – everything from apples, pears and strawberries to avocados, broccoli and nuts – this causes serious concern about the sustainability of not just our landscape but our diet.
It is no surprise then that we have warmly welcomed a new species of bumblebee into the UK. The Bombus hypnorum, or tree bumblebee, is common in mainland Europe and northern Asia, and was first identified in the UK in 2001. It is easily recognisable from other bumblebees due to its distinctive colouring – instead of stripes, it has a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail. Despite overall bumblebee decline, these ‘new-bees’ have actually spread rapidly across the UK – thanks to a very British habit.
As its name suggests, the tree bumblebee typically likes to nest in holes in trees. Because of this, they are rarely noticed on mainland Europe, where they live on the edges of woods away from human habitation. However, in Britain it is much easier to spot them regularly, thanks to a habit not shared across the Channel – that of putting up bird nest boxes close to our homes. Bird boxes filled with old nesting materials provide the perfect home for tree bumblebees, and there can be as many as 500 living in a blue tit box. This unusual choice of home is great for the overall bee population as, by preferring habitats that others do not, tree bumblebees pollinate flowers in areas that many other species do not get to.
These busy bees are one of the first bumblebees to emerge in the spring, and coexist happily with our native species without competing with or damaging them. While they are doing great work pollinating areas other bees do not reach, there is still lots we need to do to support and sustain bumblebees across the UK. To find out easy ways you can help the bees in your garden, read our ‘Bee-Kind’ Guide here.
Did you know?
Only female bumblebees have stings and, unlike the honeybee, they do not die after stinging. Bumblebees are typically docile and only sting when provoked so you are very unlikely to be stung by one as long as it is left alone.
Bumblebees are covered in an oil that makes them waterproof – very useful in wet weather and their large size keeps them warm so that they can go out on cold days.
Because of their speedy metabolism, bumblebees must eat almost constantly. If they do not eat for 40 minutes they are in danger of starving.
Bumblebees vibrate plants to make them release pollen which in turn produces more fruit for the plant. Almost every tomato in the world is pollinated by bumblebees as they need to be ‘buzz pollinated’. In Australia, where there are no native bumblebees, tomatoes are all pollinated by hand, using something that looks like an electrical toothbrush which ‘buzzes’ them.
- Bumblebees have smelly feet! They leave a scent on the flower after feeding which helps other bumblebees avoid feeding from that flower as there will be very little nectar or pollen left after another bee has fed there.