Winter Bumblebees?

Winter is a reclusive season, a time for silence, reflection and dormancy. It seems so still out there without bees buzzing about but we’re lucky we can be sure that they will emerge once again next year. There is something deeply reassuring about the repeating seasons and cycles of the natural world.

Hedera Helix

Ivy bearing bright yellow pollen in December

The typical lifecycle of a bumblebee is for queens to go into hibernation over the winter months and to emerge in spring to forage and produce eggs to build up a colony of female workers and males for the summer. Later in the season she produces new queens who go out and mate with the males. The old queen and the colony then die off leaving only the young mated queens to hibernate overwinter and start the cycle once more the next year.

I thought all bumblebees follow this cycle and all are in hibernation throughout December, January and February so I was shocked last week to find this one in our garden collecting big balls of bright yellow Ivy pollen on its legs. Usually this time of year it’s honeybees I’ve seen on Ivy.

Bombus Terrestris

After some research I found out that in some parts of the UK this bee, the Buff Tailed bumblebee [Bombus Terrestris] has now become active throughout the winter too.

It is estimated that Buff Tailed queens are visiting 6000 flowers a day at this time of year in order to collect enough nectar to maintain the heat required to brood her eggs. When she is away from the nest foraging the eggs will cool so her trips need to be short and its important she finds forage close by. It is often overlooked that we should grow plants that provide nectar and pollen throughout the winter for the non-hibernating honeybees and now also the Buff Tails! Key plants for the Buff Tails over winter are Mahonia, Strawberry Tree, Vibernum Arrowwood Dawn, Winter Honeysuckle, Rhododendron, Clematis and Ivy.

bumblebee in december 1

Having not seen a bee for a while, I was very excited to see the Buff Tailed. What a resilient little bee out and about now! There is however a slightly unnerving side to the story of my winter bumblebee sighting. With some further research it seems that this winter appearance could be a result of commercially bred, non-native bumblebees escaping from farms into the wild and mating with the Buff Tails, creating a winter hardy hybrid bee. Maybe this is what I’ve seen? BWARS [The Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society] is carrying out a study on the winter activity of the Buff Tails this year so I submitted my sighting to their website.

“Captive nests, not of the British sub-species, are now used by commercial tomato and fruit growers for pollination. Unfortunately, some sexuals may escape and inter-breed with wild bees.” BWARS

This sounds a bit concerning! Bees shape our landscape with their pollination trips and if the behavior of the bees changes, then so do plant responses.

Should we focus on increasing the intrinsic biodiversity of our farms to ensure healthy wild bee populations so we don’t need to import commercially bred species of bumbles? Yes! And why is importing non-native bees not regulated to prevent hybridisation and the spread of disease? There must be a lot of money in the bumblebee breeding business for the government to be overlooking this!!

The alternative explanation for the Buff Tails activity over winter is climate change with mild winter weather disturbing their hibernation earlier. If our winters continue to warm, it seems more bees will respond by being more active and we will see changes to our whole pollinator and plant cycles.

Bee tongue

This active winter behaviour has only been observed since the late 1990’s and is still a bit of a mystery to us. Whatever the cause for this winter activity, I sure was pleased to see her but its also reminded me that we are living through changing times for the little bees, for the planet and for us.

Who knows what winters will be like in 30 years? I hope our wild bumblebees will still be around safely dreaming their overwintering dreams underground : )

Merry Christmas bee lovers. Watch out for those Buff Tails!

0 Comments

  1. Interesting and great photos, I’m amazed that bumbles can find so many flowers at this time of year. The importation of bumbles is a big problem and has spread disease. I think specially bred bumbles have to be used for crops like tomatoes in greenhouses because wild bees would not find their way in or even be particularly interested in tomatoes if better forage was available.

    Honeybees are not really foraging at this time of year, as they cope less well with the cold than furry coated bumbles. They will be leaving the hive occasionally to poo and collect water but only for short trips.

    • Emily I agree and have heard similar things about tomatoes and know of a certain well known organic farm near to me in Totnes that is importing bumble nests for that purpose. I can’t help but think that the monoculture approach is the biggest problem with poor pollination. My experience of working in polytunnels is trying to help the bumblebees out rather than in because they get stuck under the plastic trying to fly up rather than out! They are out there, they just need our support. Supporting our native wild bee populations with more varied forage and wild zones for nesting is the solution rather than buying in those factory bees!

    • Glad you found it interesting Phillip and no I’ve not actually seen any since that one. I’m eagerly awaiting my first bumblebee sighting of 2015!

      • I suppose that because you only saw the one bumblebee that means the nest is not close by.
        I hadnt realised that the “well known organic farm” was using imported bumblebees.
        I have been watching bumblebees in Paignton this winter and have described the findings on my blog.

        • Philip I’ve just had a look on your blog and it seems we are seeing similar things. I’ve been seeing a lot of bumblebees in the last week and was as surprised as you were to see a red admiral butterfly yesterday in Dartington. It seems the Devon winters are very mild in the eyes of pollinators!

          • Yes, I agree we are seeing similar things. I suppose the bumblebees you have seen in late February could be those waking up from hibernation a few weeks early because of the mild Devon weather.

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