The Humble, Bumbling, Bumble.
As a grower, the arrival and flight of bumble bees, not only heralds the start of the growing season, but indicates that my crops are vital enough for the bees to pollinate. I ascribe the word ‘humble’ to this most noble insect, because without them I wouldn’t be able to feed myself, my family or my customers.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN, approximately 80% of all flowering plants are specialised for pollination by animals, mostly insects. Whilst there are other methods of pollination, including by wind, birds, bats and other insects, wild bees are amongst the most important. It’s estimated that it would cost UK farmers £1.8 billion each year, to manually pollinate their crops (Woodland Trust 2020). I know from personal experience, attempting to save seed from squash plants, armed with a paintbrush and some marker tape, that employing a similar methodology for other crops, would result in a localised growers’ revolt!
There are 24 species of bumble bee, being busy in Britain, 8 or which are deemed to be both widespread and abundant. Referred to as the ‘Big Eight’ by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, these fellows will probably make up 97% of all your bumble bee sightings. The Big Eight include, the Common Carder, Red – tailed, Early, Tree, Garden, Heath, Buff-tailed and the White-tailed bee.
This season I had a ‘run-in’ with members of the Big Eight myself. A colony of ‘Tree’ bees took up residency in a bird box, which up until recently was the favourite of a pair of blue tits. I can only assume that ‘standards had slipped’ inside the box, as it was uninhabited long enough for the Tree bees to move in. I first noticed them, when I heard a deep droning hum resonating in the vicinity. My first thought, was that it was my neighbour on his quad bike checking his cows. However upon closer inspection, I noticed a bee perched outside the entrance of the box fanning her wings. It was on one of those sweltering days in early May when I first noticed and their humming intensified with the soaring temperature. When the thermometer reached 25°C, there were several bees taking it in turns to fan their wings, trying to keep their colony cool.
I’m well aware that bees are in trouble for a variety of reasons, including habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change, invasive species, not to mention a whole host of new pests and diseases. I like to think that I ‘do my bit’ for the bumbles, by leaving wild areas in my garden and not using pesticides. However, this experience has made me realise that I really should be doing more to help. To aide in my quest, I revisited Adam’s splendid Insect blog, to learn more about how to create a Bee B&B. Hopefully, other members of the Big Eight might be persuaded to colonise in my garden next season. It’s a ‘win-win’, for all of us. If I get peas, beans, cucumbers and strawberries in my veggie patch, I’ll happily make spaces for them to live, so they won't resort to booting out my blue tits.
Do you want to know which bees are bumbling in your garden? I personally found the FSC bee guide very useful for differentiating between them. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust also has some comprehensive information about identifying bees on their informative website.
If you’ve already made a Bee B&B, please let us know, leave a comment here or make a post on our Facebook Page, as it would be so useful for us all to compare notes!