May 2013 - Bumblebees

Bumblebee in Lin's garden, Bawburgh, 5th June   2012

Seventeen species of bumblebee have been reported in Norfolk since year 2000 but only 6 are common, including the red-tailed bumblebee found in Bawburgh gardens.  Most prove difficult to identify. They need  flowers with ample nectar for adults to feed on and pollen to feed their larvae. Different species of bumblebee have different tongue lengths and require different flowers to feed on. Those with short tongues (including the red-tailed) will feed on flowers such as clover and dandelions; those with long tongues, flowers such as honeysuckle. Bumblebees are not aggressive, only stinging to defend their nest or themselves. Those lucky enough to have a nest in the garden should leave it alone. Nests are only in use for a few months and frequently contain less than a hundred individuals.

The honey bee has a barbed sting which cannot be retracted once used; subsequently the bee dies. The bumblebee's sting is not barbed and after use can be retracted; subsequently the bumblebee does not die enabling the sting to be used again. Male bumblebees do not possess stings at all. 

Only the queen bumblebee will survive the winter which she does by hibernating. She emerges as the weather warms and looks for a suitable site to build her nest, frequently in cool, dark areas, such as compost heaps, under hedges, or under garden sheds. Some species will build nests above ground in bird boxes and holes in trees. Nests are constructed of wax and pollen. Having already mated the previous year, the queen's fertilised eggs will be laid around April time. In under a week the worker bee larvae hatch and start to feed and grow.  After 10 to 20 days they make their own silk cocoons and pupate. After a further 14 days they hatch into worker bees and start to collect nectar and pollen for the queen, who stays in the nest and builds brood chambers. All worker bees are female. Towards the end of summer, beginning of autumn, the queen will lay some unfertilized eggs which will hatch to become drones or male bumblebees. These will only feed on nectar, and carry out no other role than to mate with young female queens. They rarely return to the nest once they have left. The young mated queens will feed to build up fat reserves, and then as the weather cools, look for sites in which to hibernate over winter.

Bumblebees can beat their wings up to 11,400 times a minute.

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