As a follow up to recent articles on pesticides, you may have seen in the national press that the EU is considering a total ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been restricted for a couple of years. The reason for this is their effect on bees. Research has mostly focused on honey bees; the chemicals have been found to affect foraging as well as breeding success. These effects are also seen in bumble bees. It is thought that the decline in bee populations in recent years has been caused by these chemicals.
The chemical companies which produce these chemicals have produced reports claiming huge economic effects if they are banned, when in fact there will be very little effect as growers will adapt their cultural methods as they always do in such situations.
Please don’t use chemicals in your garden, the wildlife is usually just as interesting as the things you’ve planted. Bees are vitally important for pollinating plants, particularly our food crops.
When you sit down and relax in your garden chair, with your glass of wine or beer, take a look at the insects buzzing around. Can you see any bumble bees? Have a closer look; can you see any differences. Look at this identification guide to the common bumblebees:
(Taken from the Bumble Bee Conservation website)
Buff tailed bumble bee
White tailed bumble bee Bombus lucorum
Queens, workers and males have a yellow band on the thorax and on the abdomen. On a fresh specimen, the tail is a bright white and the yellow bands are a bright lemon-yellow colour. The males have yellow hair on their head, and extra tufts of yellow hair on the thorax and abdomen.
Garden bumblebee Bombus hortorum
The same pattern is shared by queen, worker and male: three yellow bands (at the front and rear of the thorax and a third band at the front of the abdomen). The tail is a clean white colour. The face is distinctly long, differentiating it from other species with similar banding, such as the Heath bumblebee. It is a very long tongued species that prefers flowers with deep tubes.
Early bumblebee Bombus pratorum
Queens, workers and males have a yellow band on the thorax and abdomen. The abdominal yellow banding is less pronounced or missing in workers. The tail is often dark orange-red, and may fade with time. Because the colour on the tail is restricted to the final segment, it can be difficult to see while the bee is moving. Early bumblebees are a particularly small species and the workers are markedly smaller than other foraging worker species appearing in the springtime. Males have a broad yellow collar that wraps around the thorax, and yellow hair on the face.
Common carder bee Bombus pascuorum
Queens, workers and males are almost completely brown or ginger. However, the shade varies significantly, depending on the location. Some have abdomens which are very dark, while the abdomens of others can be quite light. It is the only common UK bumblebee that is mostly brown or ginger.
Red-tailed bumblebee Bombus lapidarius
Queens and workers have a distinctive black body with an orange-red tail. Males have distinct yellow facial hairs and a yellow band on the thorax with a black abdomen and a bright orange-red tail. The hairs on the pollen baskets (on the hind legs) of the female are all black, but these may be red in males. It is very similar to the much rarer Red-shanked carder bee but the hairs on the pollen baskets of females of the latter species are red.
Tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum
Queens, workers and males all have a black head, brown-ginger thorax, black abdomen with a white tail. The proportion of white on the tail does vary significantly but is always present. This species was first found in the UK in 2001, but is now found throughout most of England and Wales. It prefers to nest above ground, often inhabiting bird boxes.
Heath bumblebee Bombus jonellus
Queens, workers and males have three yellow bands, with one at the front of the abdomen and two on the thorax. The mainland variation also has a white tail whereas the Western Isles and Shetland form has an orange/buff tail. The colouration is similar to that of the Garden bumblebee, but the face in this species is round, whereas that of the Garden bumblebee is long. This bee is also smaller than the Garden bee, but this is generally only noticeable in queens. The common name of this species is misleading, because it can be found in gardens, parks and other habitats.
Bumble bees are warm blooded insects, which is why they have fur to keep warm, they can’t fly unless their wing muscles reach a temperature of 300C. If they are colder than this, they decouple their wing muscles and shiver all their muscles to generate heat until they are warm enough to fly. They can’t do this, however if they don’t have enough food to create the energy. Their food is the nectar in flowers which they collect in their honeystomach, some for themselves and most to take back to the nest to feed the young. They also collect pollen from the flowers to take back to feed the young. Many bees have pollen baskets on their back legs, when full they are easily seen as yellow ‘shopping bags’.
Most bumble bees nest near the ground, in holes, the exception being the Tree Bumble Bee, which tends to nest high up in nest boxes or under roof tiles. If you see a swarm of bees buzzing around outside one of these, they are males, hoping to grab a female as they leave the nest. They are quite harmless and nice to watch.
You may see smaller, all brown bees, these are honey bees and there are lots in my garden at the moment, there must be some beekeepers not too far away.
So enjoy your garden with all its variety of life, bees, hoverflies, frogs, hedgehogs, ants, butterflies and birds.
By Alan Tharratt- Hornsea Civic Society