What bumblebees need to:
- Nest (for nest and nest box information see the nest box page)
- Forage for food
One area or garden may do for all of these things, but it will be different parts and features of that area that will be used for each activity.
Foraging for food.
Bumblebees drink nectar and eat pollen - nothing else, so flowers are needed for feeding. It has been estimated that a full honeystomach will give a bumblebee about 40 minutes of flying time. Without the energy in nectar a bumblebee cannot fly. If a bumblebee cannot fly it cannot reach flowers to get nectar - it will die. See the grounded bee section below on how to help grounded bumblebees.
Click here to be taken to an extensive
list of flowers visited by north American bees
and European bumblebees. The most important thing to understand in planting flowers for bumblebees is that they need flowers throughout the season. Unlike honey bees they do not have a large store of honey in their nests, but just enough to last a few days. I have split the flowers into early, summer and late flowers, but this will vary according to where you live.
- Early flowers. When the queens emerge in the spring flowers such as spring flowering heathers,
crocuses, primroses, aubrietia, comfrey, lungwort, pieris, rhododendron, bugle, cornflower, broom, poppies any flowering currants and
vetches and peas are very useful. They will also gather pollen from hazels and
willow catkins and early flowering fruit trees. A dense patch of heather will
serve as a shelter in times when the weather changes suddenly. In my garden we
let the heather flop over a low wall. The stone absorbs heat during the day and
gives it out at night, so in the morning that patch is always full of slow
moving queens with just enough energy to climb up the stems to drink their
breakfast from the flowers.
In the early days of the nest it is estimated that a Bombus terrestris queen may have to visit as many as 6000 flowers per day in order to get enough nectar to maintain the heat needed to brood her eggs. And during every foraging trip the brood will cool down, so the trips should be short. This is why it is vital that the nest is located close to rewarding flowers.
- Summer flowers. In
general most cottage garden type of flowers are useful to bumblebees such as
- balsam, Phacalia, viper's bugloss, geraniums, aquilegia, lupins,
campanulas, as well as brambles, raspberry, strawberry and other soft fruits,
and many herbs such as the different varieties of thyme, marjoram, sage, and borage.
Old-fashioned roses provide a good source of pollen, you can hear them
gathering pollen from some flowers as they sonicate the anthers to dislodge the
pollen. This is a higher sounding buzz than usual. Many flowers
especially bred for showy displays do not have nectar, for example some
nasturtiums are nectar-free, normally these provide a large amount of nectar
per flower and so are very useful. And double-flowered varieties may or may not
produce nectar, but the extra petals often make it too difficult to reach.
Foxgloves are used by the longer tongued bees not only for nectar but also as a
place to shelter during sudden showers, but some of the more showy ones have
flowers that do not open properly.
- Late flowers. Lavenders and salvias are useful later in the year, actually most of the herbs
used by cooks are used by bumblebees. Honeysuckle is also very valuable as it
provides a rich supply of nectar.
You can feed bumblebees
and many other insects even if all you have is a windowbox. When I lived in the centre of Paris all iI had was a couple of north-facing window boxes. However from spring onwards I had bumblebees, hoverflies and moths. The image on the left, and the one at the top of the page were taken of bumblebee on my windowbox.
Supplement nectar during the early days.
supplement the supply of nectar during the first few weeks of queen emergence
by putting out a mixture of 30% sugar and 70% water, the proportions do not
have to be exact. This need only be done if there has been a frost or strong
wind that has damaged the flowers. Put a small amount of the mixture onto a
small container, e.g. the top of a lemonade bottle or the cap of a pen and put
this amongst the flowers. This works very well in a patch of heather, and will
be appreciated by the queens. During cold days you may find what appears to be
an injured queen, that is a bee that is not dead but doesn't fly away. She has
probably got too cold and does not have enough energy to build up heat. If you
take the bee indoors and provide the sugar and water mixture the bee will soon
recover and be on her way, though it is best to keep her inside if it is
snowing or raining outside.
Do not spray insecticide.
indiscriminate and kills all insects as well as spiders and many other useful
invertebrates, don't use it if you can help it. Never kill ladybirds or
lacewings as they are aphid eating machines. Most gardeners know what the
adults of these insects look like, but it is the larva that eat the most. They
are not as pretty as the adults, but they have only one purpose in life, and
that is to eat as many aphids as they can. If you really feel that you must
spray then do so when it is almost dark so you will kill as few bees as
possible, and use an insecticide that is specific to the pest, e.g. one that
kills aphids only.
If you are a bird lover
you may wish to forgo spraying for two very simple reasons.
garden birds eat insects. Even those cute little blue tits that entertain you
with their acrobatics around the bird table feed their young largely on
insects. Most insecticides contain nerve poisons. The same poisons that work on
the insects will damage bird nerves the same way if enough of the poison is
eaten. They will also damage human nerves too, think of Gulf War Syndrome. All
animal nerves (humans are animals too remember) work the same way, it's just
that bigger animals need to eat, breathe or absorb more poison to produce the
immediate effect seen in tiny insects. So even if you don't like insects, think
of the birds, your dog, hedgehogs, frogs. And if that is not enough think of
yourself and all your own little neurotransmitters firing off around your body with nerve impulses travelling at 250 mph.
How many of them are you willing to disrupt or destroy? Also unlike neurons in the rest of the body, those in the brain and spinal cord do not regenerate
- If there are no
insects in your garden you won't attract insect eating birds.
The bumblebee is either sick, too old or too cold to fly. If it
is sick or infected with a parasite then I'm afraid
there is not much that can be done. However if you find a grounded bumblebee early in the year, just at the start of the first warmer
days, then it is probably a queen. She may have been caught out in a sudden
shower or a cold spell. If the temperature of the thorax falls below 30 oC the bumblebee cannot take off (see temperature regulation). The best thing you can do it pick
her up using a piece of paper or card, put her somewhere warmer, and feed her.
When she has warmed and fed she will most likely fly off. You can feed her
using a 30/70 mixture of honey and water in a pipette or eye dropper, or just a
drop of this on a suitable surface within her reach, but be careful not to wet
her hair or get her sticky. By saving a queen you may have saved an entire
nest. If the weather is really unsuitable for letting her go, or if it is getting dark, you can keep her for a day or so if you are willing to feed her.
A grounded bee
found at the height or end of summer is another matter. Look at the wings. If
they are ragged round the edges (see the photographs of wings) then you have either an old queen or an old
worker. There is little you can do as really it is their time to die, however
you could take them in and feed them if you wish, but let them go if they start
to fly. If the wings are fairly intact then you have probably got a male that
is either cold or has been so busy patrolling that he forgot to drink. As above
you can take him somewhere warm and feed him, then let him go.
Bumblebees nests have their own page.
Generally these are not south
facing as they would warm up too quickly in the spring causing the queen to
emerge before there was sufficient flowers in bloom supplying nectar and
pollen. So hibernation sites tend to be in cooler places. Under tree roots and
at the base of walls and hedges seem to be the most popular places. The main
thing is dryness, so damp areas are out. Also the substrate must be loose enough for the queen to dig into.
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