It would be impossible to write a series of blog posts about garden pollinators for Pollinator Awareness Week without considering the bumblebees (genus Bombus) and I intend to devote the last two posts to that group of bees. The bumblebees are arguably the UK’s most important pollinators of both wild and crop plants, certainly later in the season when colony numbers have increased. Earlier in the season it’s the solitary bees such as the Orange-tailed mining bee that are predominant.
Although common and widespread in gardens, the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) belongs to a group of bees in which the workers are rather variable in appearance and can be very difficult to distinguish from those in the Bombus lucorum group, which includes two other species (B. cryptarum and B. magnus).
This is a truly social species with an annual nest comprising workers and a queen. Nests are founded by queens that have mated the previous year and hibernated. They usually choose old rodent nests in which to begin their colonies, which is why they are sometimes found in garden compost bins. An interesting question that I’ve not seen answered is whether the queens actively displace mice or voles from such nests: does anyone know? This association between bumblebees and mice led Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley into some speculation as to the role of spinsters in the British Empire.
In my garden the Buff-tailed bumblebee pollinates a range of crops including strawberries, squashes, courgettes, blackberries, runner beans, french beans, tomatoes, and raspberries. As the photo above shows they also visit the flowers of passion fruit, where they seem to be more effective than the smaller honey bees and solitary bees.