This spring, we’ve been inspired by wild Cornish hedgerows and all of the flora and fauna that surrounds them. You may have seen our very sweet handmade bees as part of our shop displays, made by Kathryn and the windows team here in Falmouth. A limited number are now on sale in all of our shops, and all donations will go to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a national charity with a mission to halt and reverse the decline of bumblebees, and keep our countryside buzzing.
To find out more about the plight of bumblebees, we caught up with Darryl Cox, the Trust’s senior science and policy officer.
Why are bumblebees so important, and why do they need our help?
Bumblebees are crucial pollinators in our ecosystems and cropping systems. They have a key role in the pollination of our most nutritional fruits and vegetables, as well as a huge number of our wild plants. Without them, food would undoubtedly be harder to produce and prices would rise, plus many wild plants would struggle to reproduce with repercussions for the animals which depend on them for food and shelter. Sadly though, many of our bumblebee species have been in a state of decline over the last 80 years. During this time we have lost over 97% of our wildflower meadows meaning there is now much less food available for bumblebees and other pollinators. It is essential we reverse these declines and help re-establish healthy populations.
How many different species of bumblebee are there?
In the world there are over 250 bumblebee species and in the UK we have 25. However, one of these species, the Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subteranneus), is only included on the list because of efforts to reintroduce it to the UK. Sadly, it was officially declared extinct in the UK in 2000, having not been seen since 1988.
What’s the lifecycle of a bumblebee?
Bumblebees have an annual life-cycle in which a single queen, having hibernated over winter in the ground, will emerge in spring in search of food (flowers) and shelter. At this time you may notice large bumblebee queens zigzagging close to the ground or even inspecting holes in the earth like old rodent burrows. Once she has found a safe and dry place to nest she will begin collecting pollen and nectar to feed her young and sustain herself while they grow. Once developed into adults, these bees (which are all female) will be the queen’s first batch of workers. The workers will start to take over foraging and nest duties, allowing the queen to concentrate on laying more eggs. The colony will continue to grow like this until the summer, when it will hopefully be big enough to reach the reproductive phase. This is the point where the queen switches to laying males and new queens. Male bees leave the nest and seldom return, they spend their days sipping nectar from flowers and competing with each other to find and mate with a new queen. The new queens fatten up in the nest before leaving to find a mate and somewhere in the earth to hibernate for the winter. Next year’s colonies will depend on their success.
What kind of habitats do bumblebees prefer?
They will forage pretty much anywhere which has an abundance of flowers; meadows, parks, gardens, natural greenspaces, farmland. In terms of nesting, different species have different preferences, some will nest underground in old rodent burrows, others will nest on the ground in dense overgrown vegetation or hedgerows, and some prefer to nest above ground in bird boxes and roof spaces.
How can I make my garden bee-friendly?
The most important thing to do is to start adding some bee-friendly plants. If you can have a conveyer belt of flowers in bloom between the months of March and October you will be providing crucial foraging resources throughout the life-cycles of the UK’s bumblebees. Visit www.beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org to score your garden and receive planting recommendations.
I’ve only got a small garden – can I still help support bees?
Definitely, even a single window-box can provide a feeding opportunity for bees. Containers and hanging baskets can be really effective. Drought tolerant herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage are good to use as containers are more prone to drying out – they’re also useful in the kitchen too.
What do if I find a bumblebee outside when it’s cold or in bad weather?
The main thing to remember is that bumblebees are built for our climate and can even be seen foraging in the rain. Some even stay active throughout winter. However, if you find a bumblebee which looks to be particularly slow or exhausted and there are no bee-friendly flowers around, you can try offering it a few drops of sugar water (roughly 50/50 white sugar and water) on a spoon or in a bottle cap. If the weather is particularly severe, it is ok to shelter a bee indoors for a night, although they need to be outside to complete their life-cycles, particularly queens as they have a colony to raise!
What else can I do to help bumblebees?
Beyond the garden, you can help by joining the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, an organisation dedicated to conserving and raising awareness about bumblebees. Membership costs about as much as a cup of coffee a month and can really go a long way to helping the UK’s most threatened species. There are plenty of other ways to get involved too; fundraising, volunteering and taking part in a monthly bee walk to help monitor bumblebees in your area. Visit www.bumblebeeconservation.org for more information.