COLUMN: We should all hope the bees are busy, busy, busy

Cuckoo bumblebee Bombus sylvestris, pollinating teasel head, UK, August
Cuckoo bumblebee Bombus sylvestris, pollinating teasel head, UK, August

Oh what a wonderful thing to be. A healthy, grown-up, busy busy bee.

So sang 1940’s comedian Arthur Askey. Now we are properly into spring, you can see his point. Big fat bees are buzzing around from flower to flower. It looks like they are having a great old time. These are probably queen bumblebees. Very much larger than honeybees, they will have spent the winter sleeping through the cold weather buried in the ground. When the warm weather of spring arrives, they wake up and start to feed on nectar in flowers. The long winter will have sapped their energy, so they need to replace it quickly.

Once they have refuelled, the queen bees make a nest. There she will lay eggs which turn into slightly smaller worker bees. They then act as the queen’s servants, gathering food and protecting the nest whilst she stays put and lays yet more eggs. The size of the colony is variable, but can reach up to 400 bees. That sounds like a lot, but a honeybee hive can have up to 80,000 bees! Unlike honeybees which can be vigorous in the defence of their hive, bumblebees are usually very calm and won’t attack if someone comes near to their nest. So if you do spot a bee nest in your garden, there is no need to panic.

Once we get through to the autumn, male or ‘drone’ bumblebees are hatched, as are new queens. The new queens mate with the drones and then go off to hibernate. The colony of the old queen and the workers then die off in the cold winter weather and the cycle begins anew.

In the UK we have 24 species of bumblebee, out of 250 worldwide. Some are very common, others really quite rare. Habitat loss and use of insecticides has been blamed for the decline in many bee species.

The RSPB has been leading the fight against the decline, reintroducing the short-haired bumblebee back to England after it went extinct in the 1980’s. Why? Well, aside from their own charm, bumblebees are incredibly valuable as pollinators. All sorts of flowering plants, including some commercially valuable ones, owe their existence to bees pollinating them. So let’s hope that they remain busy busy bees.

Dr Chris Andrews

Visitor experience manager

RSPB Frampton Marsh