Tag Archives: Bumblebees

Honey bee or honeybee; bumblebee or bumble bee?

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Language is fascinating, particularly the way in which it changes over time to incorporate new words, or old words used differently.  In science this has important implications for understanding: semantics matter.  With this in mind I’ve been curious about the alternative ways in which authors write the informal names of species.  Scientific names (Genus species)  should be fairly stable in their spelling and presentation (though not always, especially in the older literature); but “common” names of species vary widely geographically and temporally.

Here’s an example using Google’s Ngram Viewer which is a useful tool for tracking changes in word use over time.  Different authors currently use the terms “honey bee” and “honeybee”, sometimes in the same publication.  But as the image above shows. historical analysis suggests that “honey bee” is the more traditional term, and that “honeybee” only came into common usage from the start of the 20th century, and by the late 1920s had taken over “honey bee”.

Likewise “bumblebee” and “bumble bee”; despite “bumble bee” having a much earlier usage, “bumblebee” has dominated since the late 19th century:

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-16-51It’s interesting to speculate about what might have caused these shifts in use, and it’s possible that in these examples it was the publication of especially influential books that used one term over another and influenced subsequent writers.  Could make a good project for a student studying how use of language varies in different time periods.

For my own part I tend to prefer “honey bee” and “bumblebee”, but I can’t precisely articulate why; perhaps it’s because in Europe we talk about “the honey bee” as a single species (Apis mellifera) but not “the bumblebee” because there is usually more than one co-occurring Bombus species in a particular area.  Do others have a particular preference?

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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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How to deal with bumblebees in your roof [UPDATED]

Bombus hypnorum

This week I’ve had two enquiries from colleagues at the University of Northampton asking advice on what to do about colonies of bumblebees that have set up home in their roofs.  In both cases these were nests of the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum), a species that only colonised the British Isles in 2001 and has since spread rapidly (see this post from last year for a more detailed account).  Because of their association with human settlements they are significant pollinators of garden produce: over the past few weeks I’ve been watching them pollinating the raspberries in our garden and we now have a large crop.

But having a bee nest in your home is, for many people, a real concern.  I thought it might be useful to discuss the issue by quoting from the email correspondence I had with my first colleague, Paul.


Paul wrote:   I wonder if you can give me some advice. I returned home from holiday on Saturday to find that a colony of bees had taken up residence in a roof space above my front porch. The bees are not domestic honey bees but large bumblebees with white rears. I am not sure how many there are, they buzz furiously when I close the door…..  They are not in the house and I cannot see them from my loft…..so they are not causing a problem at the moment other than a moderate dead rabbit smell in the porch.

I am considering contacting the local council pest controllers, but fear they may just gas and kill them as they are not honey bees. What would your advice be, would it be safe to leave them alone, if so how long are they likely to stay, how large is the colony likely to become, are they likely to cause any damage or mess?

Here’s my response:   From your description they are almost certainly Tree Bumblebees which often use loft spaces, bird boxes, etc. As the name suggests they naturally nest in holes in trees. The colony is not likely to get much bigger though over the next few weeks you may find males patrolling the front of the nest, waiting for the virgin females to emerge so that they can mate. That sometimes makes the colony seem larger than it actually is – there are not likely to be more than about 150 bees in there.

I’ve had Tree Bumblebees in my roof a few times and they’ve never caused any damage. All bumblebee colonies die over the winter and the newly-mated females fly off and hibernate. So by late August or September (perhaps earlier if the weather ever gets warmer….) the bees should have gone. At that time you could seal the entrance to the roof space, though they are unlikely to return next year (although it’s not unknown).

Yes, a pest controller would kill the colony. But they are unlikely to be aggressive unless you stick your fingers in the nest hole! My advice is to let them be and take pride in your own bee colony – they are very discerning and don’t nest just anywhere 🙂


So there you have it: my advice is, leave them alone.  Of course if you or your family have a particular sensitivity to bee stings you may need to think carefully about this advice, but in my experience bumblebees are only aggressive if they feel directly threatened.  In over 25 years of field work focused on bees and other pollinators, I’ve only ever been stung a few times, and mainly by honey bees.

UPDATE: A commenter on Facebook had a great suggestion, that I provide a link to Dave Goulson’s nice little video showing what the inside of a bumblebee nest looks like – so here it is.

 

 

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IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group annual report 2015

Bombus hypnorum March 2010

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a Bumblebee Specialist Group which is focused on assessing the conservation status of the c. 260 species within the genus Bombus.  If you follow the link above you can find out more information about the group and a PDF of the most recent annual report for 2015, plus past reports for 2012-2014.

The work of specialist groups such as this is vital for providing evidence as to the true picture of how the world’s pollinators are faring, and what can be done to reverse local and regional declines in their diversity and abundance.

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Bumblebee Working Group meeting – University of Sussex – 30th March

Bombus hypnorum

It’s been three years since the last meeting of the semi-formal Bumblebee Working Group, which I hosted at the University of Northampton, and British Bombus researchers  are eagerly looking forward to the next one which is being organised by Professor Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex on 30th March.  There is no charge and if anyone with an interest in bumblebees wishes to attend, please contact Dave.

Here’s the programme for the day, which starts at 10am and finishes at 4.30pm:

Goulson, Dave – Welcome

Williams, Paul  – Bumblebees of extreme environments

Alger, Samantha – RNA viruses in Vermont bumblebees

COFFEE BREAK

Baron, Gemma – Impacts of a neonicotinoid pesticide on colony founding bumblebee queens

Becher, Matthias Bumble – BEEHAVE: using bumblebee colony models as a conservation management tool in agricultural landscapes

Breeze, Tom – Knowledge gaps for effectively valuing pollination services

Cresswell, James – New European Union protocols for testing the toxicological impacts of agro-chemicals on bees

Crowther, Liam – Inferring invertebrate dispersal distances from biological records

LUNCH

Rotheray, Ellie – Quantification of the floral landscape in agro-ecosystems and its effect on bumblebee colonies

Nicholls, Beth – Pesticides in rural and urban bumblebee nests

Benton, Ted – Status of the BAP carders in Essex

Ollerton, Jeff – Exceptional urban nest density of the Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum during summer 2014

SHORT BREAK

Raine, Katherine – Chernobyl bumblebees: Understanding fitness consequences of living in the exclusion zone

Jackson, Laurie  – B-lines

Gammans, Nikki – An update on the progress of reintroducing the short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus 

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Garden pollinators for PAW no. 7 – Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)

Bombus hypnorum

For my final post for Pollinator Awareness Week I’ve chosen another bumblebee, one with a fascinating history and ecology. The Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) is a relatively new arrival on our shores.  It was first discovered near Southampton by Dave Goulson in 2001; since then has spread out through the country, as far north (currently) as central Scotland, and has recently been recorded from Ireland.  It arrived in Northamptonshire in 2006. The Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) has been tracking its spread through a recording scheme: it’s very distinctive being the only one of our 25 bumblebees to have a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail.

All the evidence suggests that this was a natural range expansion for the species rather than a deliberate or accidental introduction by people.  It’s what species do, they move around and change their distribution over timescales of decades to hundreds of years (there are lots of bird examples of this, including the Collared dove in the UK).  There’s no suggestion that this was due to climate change, however: Bombus hypnorum has long been present in colder parts of Europe and Scandinavia.

That said, there is probably a human influence to its spread as the species is closely associated with houses and gardens, often nesting in bird boxes or roof spaces (we had one in our roof for three years running).  The natural nesting habit for this bee is tree holes (hence the common name) which is why they are usually found in cavities above the ground.  However, like the Buff-tailed bumblebee, they can also be found in compost heaps, as a recent posting on the Bees Knees Facebook group showed (if you’re not a member of that group I can recommend it as it’s full of friendly, practical gardening advice for those interested in how their garden can be beautiful, productive and wildlife-friendly).

Although the Tree bumblebee will take nectar and pollen from an assortment of garden plants it seems to be particularly associated with members of the rose family (Rosaceae) and is a frequent pollinator of rosaceous soft fruit such as raspberries and blackberries.  I tried and failed yesterday to photograph the bee on our raspberries, so here’s a photograph of the outcome of that pollination.

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The Tree bumblebee is rapidly becoming one of the commonest garden bumblebees.  Is this likely to cause problems for our other bumblebees, by out-competing them for nectar and pollen, or even nesting sites?  It’s too early to tell but I’d be surprised if it does.

Bombus hypnorum March 2010

Phew!  That’s it!  It’s been a bit of marathon preparing these posts on top of writing a large grant application and a thousand other jobs, but it’s been a lot of fun.  Thanks to everyone who has viewed my posts For Pollinator Awareness Week and commented on them, either on the site or on Facebook.  Hopefully they have raised a broader awareness of our amazing native pollinators.

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