Yesterday afternoon, as I was relaxing and doing a jigsaw, I heard a high pitched and quiet ‘thud’, as if someone had tapped on the patio doors behind me. Turning to look I saw a large bumblebee flying repeatedly into the glass! I thought it was a bit early to see a bee (it’s the back end of winter after all) so decided to find out more. It turns out that my visitor was a queen bee looking for somewhere to set up a new colony.
Yesterday was quite warm and sunny. When the weather heats up due to the approach of spring, queen bumblebees wake from their winter sleep. After such a long time without food they are quite dopey and very hungry! First thing on the agenda is finding some nectar to eat.
They are the only members of last year’s colony to have made it through the cold months and, after eating, now they need a home where they can raise a new family. Any place sheltered will do – an empty bird box, an old rabbit hole, the gap beneath a shed – somewhere dark, dry and safe.
Next the queen will lay her eggs. She sits on them to keep them warm and, when they have hatched, gathers pollen and nectar to feed them. But, once the larvae have matured (about 3 weeks after the egg was laid), her working days are over. The first of her offspring are all female and all workers. They will spend their lives gathering food, tending more eggs and larvae that the queen produces, cleaning the nest and protecting it. All the queen has to do is keep on laying eggs.
She’ll lay hundreds of eggs in all – the vast majority of which will be female workers. But, as summer draws to a close, the queen will produce two different types of offspring – males and virgin queens. Once these have grown up they leave the nest and mate. The males then die, their job done, but the queens (no longer virgin) return to the nest to fatten up for the approaching winter.
When autumn comes and food becomes scarce, the new queens depart and find somewhere (usually a small hole in the ground) to lie dormant. They sleep from October until March – or less if it’s a warm year – before emerging and repeating the cycle once again.
Bumblebees are in trouble here in the UK, as I wrote about last April. Their numbers have plummeted over the last 100 years or so, due mostly to new farming methods. But all is not yet lost. Some organisations, like the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, are doing what they can to help raise awareness of the bee’s plight. With a change in our behaviour we can keep these important pollinators from going extinct – I’m sure you’ll agree their loss would be a sad day indeed.