Bumblebees, ferries, and mass migrations: an update

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The post earlier this week on the question of “Why do bumblebees follow ferries?” generated quite a few comments, both on the blog and on Facebook.  As I’d hoped a number of people have chimed in to say that they have observed the same thing, or commented that they often see bumblebees when sailing or kayaking out at sea.

Here are the additional observations in increasing distance order to nearest larger area of land.  Distances are approximate and in some cases it’s unclear where exactly the observations were made:

Isle of Mull to the Isle of Staffa: 6.5km

Skye and the Outer Hebrides going in both directions: 24km

Ferry to Jersey: 28.4km

Estonia to Helsinki: 80km – described in a short paper by Mikkola (1984).

However this is nothing compared to evidence that queen bumblebees may engage in mass migrations (involving thousands of bees) across the North Sea from England to Holland, a distance of 165km!  See Will Hawkes’s short article “Flight of the Bumblebee“.

This idea of mass migration is new to me, though the Mikkola (1984) paper cites some earlier literature on the topic.  And this morning I had a quick phone chat with Dave Goulson who tells me that he occasionally gets people contacting him to tell him about such events.  But it’s unclear why these bees should be flying such large distances, how they coordinate their migrations, or indeed how much energy they need to store to travel that far. In addition there are implications for gene flow between British and Continental subspecies of bees such as the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Even a relatively well studied group of insects such as the bumblebees can continue to surprise us with new questions!

Thanks to everyone who contributed observations and ideas, it’s much appreciated.

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7 Comments

Filed under Bees, Biodiversity

7 responses to “Bumblebees, ferries, and mass migrations: an update

  1. Hats off to the chap who stood and counted 3,387 bumblebees arriving on the coast. Some of us might have given up after the first thousand and gone for a coffee!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. After reading about these bumblebee feats, I love them even more. What incredible creatures!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. And bumblebee feets are pretty good too – they leave scent marks on flowers to tell other bees not to bother visiting 😉

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      • Yes, I had heard – and through observing afterwards I’ve seen then using those scents to avoid wasting time. Other bees don’t recognise the scents, do they? I say that because I’ve seen what I think are honey bees having a go at what bumblebees have already seen to (or maybe it’s just that the honey bees can reach different parts of the flower).

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      • Yes, I think the scents are species-specific.

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  3. It is amazing that bumble bees can fly 130 miles across the North sea. It puts the Asian hornets short hop this year across the channel into perspective. It seems also that such a limited knowledge about insects diffuses into the general public (like me). Amelia

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Murtagh's Meadow

    Fascinating:)

    Liked by 1 person

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