Bumblebees are endearing and familiar insects. Their animated behaviour and deep buzz as they fly from flower to flower makes them a delight to watch.
Sadly though, our bumblebees have been declining because of changes in agricultural practises that have largely removed flowers from the landscape, leaving the bumblebees with little to feed upon. Most UK species have declined greatly in recent years, and two have become extinct in the UK since 1940.
Bumblebees belong to the order ‘Hymenoptera’ which includes Bees, Wasps, Ants, Sawflies. There are distinct differences between the appearance and lives of bumblebees, honeybees and solitary bees. Bumblebees are larger and hairier than honeybees and solitary bees, which makes them perfectly suited for colder climates. Bumblebee nests are small and they do not store large quantities of honey, so they are more sensitive to the availability of pollen and nectar-rich flowers to feed on. Bumblebees do not swarm and are not aggressive. Only female bumblebees can sting and they will only do so if they feel very threatened.
Bumblebees play a vitally important role which we shouldn’t take for granted. On top of pollinating a wide range of wild plants across the landscape, they also pollinate the crops that provide us with food to eat. Without their pollination service, many wildflowers could disappear. Key ingredients from our diets, such as beans, peas, raspberries and tomatoes would be harder to produce and much more expensive without British bumblebees
Where do bumblebees occur?
There are around 250 species of bumblebee in the world, and most of these are found in the northern hemisphere, although South America has a few native species, and New Zealand has some which were introduced from Britain.
Two species of bumblebee have become nationally extinct in the last 100 years. In the same period, a new species, the Tree bumblebee, colonised the UK from Europe. The UK therefore has 24 resident bumblebee species, and BBCT are working on a project to reintroduce one of the extinct species, the Short-haired bumblebee.
Only eight species are commonly found in most places. Bumblebees are found in a variety of habitats and most people should be able to attract them to their gardens if they have the right kinds of flowering plants.
Some species are less common and are only found in a few locations. For example, the Shrill carder bee, which is now only found in seven areas in southern England and Wales. This species previously had a wide distribution throughout the south of the UK, but habitat degradation has seen its numbers decline dramatically in most places.