Plight of the Bumblebee

From the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Shut your eyes and imagine summer ñ what do you hear? Not birdsong; they’re busy now feeding their chicks. It’s the buzzing of bees that really evokes feelings of long hazy days. Sadly, our bumblebees are in rapid decline, with three species already extinct, but the good news is… there are things that you can do to help save them.

The sanitisation of the countryside has taken its toll on all wildlife but it seems as if true’ bumblebees may have been particularly hard hit. The UK has 18 native species and of these nine ñ 50 per cent ñ are either already extinct or on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. That’s the highest percentage of any insect group. They are extremely important pollinators of both our crops and wildflowers, so the consequences of these declines are far reaching. In 2006 a new national membership-based charity was launched to try and halt declines and safeguard our bumblebees for future generations.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is working with farmers to improve things in the countryside but the general public can also do a lot to help. Urban gardens in the UK cover roughly one million hectares ñ that’s more than all of our nature reserves combined ñ and are now a stronghold for many of the more common generalist species. If the right flowers are cultivated and suitable nesting sites provided, they could offer sanctuary to some of the rarer species too.

Bumblebees have a simple life cycle. They rely largely on two things: somewhere to nest and lots of suitable flowers to feed from. So if you’d like to help, the first step is to fill your garden to the brim with bumblebee-friendly plants, which will provide them with food from March through to October. This needn’t be a sacrifice, as many of the flowers the Trust recommend are extremely beautiful.

Why specific plants? Well, readily available bedding plants have usually been bred for show and so produce little nectar or pollen. Bumblebees need these resources and will struggle if gardeners do not provide them. Rare species in particular seem to be heavily dependant on high quality protein-rich pollen, which they can only get from certain flowers.

For maximum benefit, try to include a mixture of cottage garden plants and native wildflowers. Comfrey, viper’s bugloss and fox-gloves will be well received, along with members of the pea family, like lupins, sweet peas and clovers. The latter can be encouraged by leaving a neat area of your lawn uncut between April and September. A comprehensive list of beautiful plants is available on the Trust’s website or as a fact-sheet on request.

Domestic gardens are also very important nesting sites for bumblebees and the Trust is often sent pictures of nests under sheds. We don’t advocate filling your garden with sheds but instead suggest a number of more practical steps you can take! Queens look for a dry, dark and ventilated cavity, with an entrance tunnel at ground level. Commercial designs are available but are very rarely used; perhaps because they lack the tunnel. Why not try making something yourself? The Trust’s website has some ideas but they suggest creativity. Nests should be sited in a sheltered spot along a hedge, bank or fence, out of direct sunlight. Put in a handful of dry moss, upholsterer’s cotton, hair, felt or hamster bedding for the bees to mould into a nest.

Finally but no less importantly, please take part in BeeWatch 2008. Help the Trust map the distributions of our bumblebees. It is only by knowing where our rare species occur and how bee populations are changing over time, that we can effectively conserve them. You don’t need to be an expert to take part ñ all you need is a digital camera. Send photographs of the bumblebees in your garden, along with a date and postcode to the email address below and you’ll be adding a dot to the distribution maps.

Contact: Bumblebee Conservation Trust,
School of Biological and Environmental Sciences,
The University of Stirling,
Stirling FK9 4LA, Scotland

Send your photos to Beewatch 2008
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.bumblebeeconservationtrust.co.uk

To buy nest boxes or roosting pockets
Contact: www.ecotopia.co.uk

A garden bumblebee worker smells a flower of
viper’s bugloss with her antennae to see if
it has been visited recently. Photo: © Ben Darvill

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