Jess Price, from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, explains how a queen bee builds up a successful colony over the summer months.
April and May certainly were wet and windy months in Sussex, but now we’ve finally got some sunshine – albeit in short bursts!
One group of insects that will be pleased with the change are bumblebees. By now queens will have emerged from hibernation and will be busy building nests of their own.
All this activity takes a lot of energy and queens and workers will be desperately looking for nectar and pollen rich flowers to help them keep going.
There are 24 species of bumblebee found in the UK and different species have different nesting preferences, but generally they all like dry, concealed cavities. Queen bumblebees do not collect any extra nesting material so will usually look for an old mammal or bird nest to use as insulation for her own nest.
This means nests are often underground in disused rodent burrows or in the dry base of a grass tussock or pile of leaves. They can also make use of bird boxes and if you see bees coming out of your compost heap then these are certainly bumblebees.
One of the most important tasks for a new queen is to make sure that her nest is close to lots of nectar and pollen rich flowers from which she can forage as she incubates her eggs. Once she has found a suitable nesting site the queen builds a small nest from wax, lays some eggs and incubates them using her warm abdomen.
The eggs hatch into larvae which she feeds tirelessly until they pupate into adult worker bees. Now the queen’s sterile daughters can take over the foraging whilst she concentrates on producing eggs.
The nest will grow and grow until eventually the queen produces some male eggs and new queens. These are her only fertile offspring so once they pupate they immediately fly off to mate. Sadly the old queen, males and all the workers die with only the newly mated queens surviving through winter to start new colonies the following year.
I often get phone calls from people who are worried about bees nesting in their garden, but they are nothing to be scared of – bumblebees are not at all aggressive and do not swarm. As colonies only last a single summer, nests will soon be empty so it’s always best to leave them undisturbed.
I personally think that it is a great privilege to have bumblebees in your garden. Generally only six of the 24 species of British bumblebee commonly come into gardens and their presence shows that you have created a fantastic habitat for them.
It is important we do what we can to help bumblebees. A lack of nectar rich flowers in the wider countryside means that some bees rely on the flowers we plant in our garden. You don’t have to have a big cottage garden. A hanging basket brimming with native wildflowers or a trellis full of honeysuckle on the patio will still benefit these industrious insect.
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