In praise of the humble bumblebees

Mary O’Riordan applauds the insect who puts the buzz into Spring.

In praise of the humble bumblebees

SPRING has begun, temperatures are rising, though too slowly, and the bumblebee is on the move which has reminded me to put in a good word for the humble bumblebee.

Beekeepers tend not to be as interested in bumblebees for the selfish reason that they don’t make delicious honey for our toast or for sale.

However, once you see and hear the large bumblebee queen in early spring and recognise her serious work ethic you cannot but admire this species of bee.

Intriguingly, bumblebees, because of their long tongues and buzzing, are more adapted to fertilise plants in which the pollen and nectar lie deep inside, as in red clover.

They are also able to work in colder weather than the honeybee; this is why fruit producers in Ireland import bumblebees in spring time to ensure pollination of apple and pear trees just in case the honeybees are unable to leave their hives due to cold weather.

The Honeybee and Bumblebee often get confused by us and even some of our top media outlets will publish pictures of bumblebees when they are discussing/writing about honeybees.

Some of the more marked differences are in their size and lifestyle.

Bumblebees are fat and furry compared to the slim, smooth appearance of the honeybee.

They are generally black with varying degrees of yellow/red banding across the end of their tails.

There are 20 different species of bumblebees in Ireland.

The bumblebee lives in nests with between 50 and 500 bees and only the queen survives and hibernates for the winter.

Because they live in small nests, the size of a tennis ball, bumblebees never swarm —and you can encourage a nest or two in the garden without fear of this happening.

Bumblebees don’t produce enough honey for commercial use, just a few grams at a time to feed their young.

But you will be glad to hear that bumblebees are much less aggressive than honey bees and rarely sting.

The lifecycle of the bumblebee is also interesting. The lifecycle begins in spring, when the bumblebee queen awakens from hibernating alone in the soil.

The queen will have spent the entire winter underground, using up reserves of energy stored as fat in her body.

When she first emerges, she feeds on flowers, drinking nectar to gain energy.

She will then begin to search for a suitable nest site, probably in the ground, clumpy grass, leaf litter or under garden sheds.

The queen will then begin to collect pollen from flowers, to bring back to the nest. She forms a loaf of pollen and wax and lays her first brood of eggs, usually around six.

She also collects nectar which she stores in a pot-shaped structure made of wax at the edge of the nest. The queen keeps the eggs warm by sitting on her wax ‘nest’ and shivering her muscles to keep warm.

This first brood of offspring are all females, the workers!!

Some will guard or clean the nest, while others will forage for nectar and pollen from flowers.

Some of the nectar will be consumed by the working bees, but much of it will be brought back to the colony to feed to other workers and the next batch of offspring.

From this point on, the queen will not leave the nest. Instead, she will remain inside, laying more eggs and ordering her workers around.

As the season progresses nests produce offspring which are not workers. New queens (females) and males are produced to allow the colony to reproduce. The male bees leave the nest and do no domestic work.

Once mated, new queens feed heavily on pollen and nectar, storing the energy as fat inside their bodies. This fat will be used to provide energy during a long hibernation.

The old queen and her nest will come to an end as summer turns in to autumn. Only the new queens survive until the following spring, by hibernating underground.

Bumblebees are great pollinators in our gardens and vital to horticulturalists.

Some of the 20 or so species of bumblebee left in Ireland are under threat of extinction.

It is therefore important to try not to disturb a nest of bumblebees if you find one in your garden or garage.

If it’s in an awkward place try to put up with it for a few weeks.

Remember it will die out with the first frosts and can then be safely removed.

One tip— should the bees be nesting under a wooden building they often seem to exit on the most inconvenient space.

Open another exit, perhaps on another side of the shed and leave it for a few days for the bees to find. Then block up the old exit.

An experienced beekeeper may be sought out to remove the nest but they are often reluctant to disturb nests as the bumblebee is such a good pollinator and they are under threat from modern farming methods already.

Gardeners can help. It’s possible to invite bumblebee colonies to your own backyard.

Some enthusiasts bury tins or old teapots with the spouts exposed to attract them; small tunnels can be scooped and covered with paving slabs.

Siting nests is important. The searching queens are inquisitive and will pay more attention to places near fences, rocks or timber piles.

But the best way to care for bees is to provide food -- early flowering plants such as dead nettle and archangel and then lupins, salvias, delphinium, honeysuckle, lavender, thyme, borage, bush fruits and red and white clover.

Think of bees when you choose garden plants.

We should worry for ourselves and the world, as well as for them, as their numbers continue to fall.

So, here’s to bumblebees. They may not make honey, but their hard work brings us other delicious gifts. We need them and they need our attention and support.

For tips on building your own nest boxes and improving your hyper-local habitat to attract and support local bumblebee colonies see

Upcoming event: The Western Beekeepers are hosting a trilogy of practical beekeeping talks by international expert, Prof Robert Pickard in NUI Galway on April 22 and 23. Email:

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