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The social life of the humble bumblebee

Buff tailed bumble bee. Photo Vicky NallBuff tailed bumble bee. Photo Vicky Nall

By Dyane Silvester

To understand and appreciate the bumblebee requires us to delve deep into the history of our planet, to a time when dinosaurs roamed through humid tropical forests of tree ferns and conifers.

It was during this period 135 million years ago that the first bees evolved from wasp-like ancestors to pollinate the early forms of flowering plants that would come to dominate the earth. From humble beginnings those primitive bees have evolved into the 250 species of bumblebee that share our world today of which 27 species occur in the UK.

Since the studies of Charles Darwin in the early nineteenth century, much has been discovered about the complex lives of British bumblebees. In the spring, large queen bees emerge starving from hibernation and seek out pollen and nectar to nourish their fertilised eggs. Once the queen has fed, she will find a nest in an old rodent burrow or under a shed, and lay a clutch of eggs in a ball of pollen which she will incubate by shivering until the eggs hatch into grubs.

Throughout the spring and summer her nest grows as each new batch of eggs develop into female worker bees whose role is to gather food for the developing brood. Then in late summer the queen’s strategy changes and she no longer produces sterile worker bees; instead her eggs will hatch as females destined to develop as future queens and males who will mate and fertilise those virgin queens before they hibernate again in July and August. By the autumn, having exhausted all the reserves of the colony, the ageing queen and all her workers will perish leaving only the new queens underground to survive the winter.

Although most bumblebee species labour hard to build their own nests in which they care for their growing brood, one group namely the cuckoo bumblebees have developed a more ruthless and sinister reproductive strategy. They emerge a little later from hibernation, use smell to locate the nests of other common species such as buff-tailed bumblebees, before attacking and killing the resident queen. By mimicking the appearance of the deceased queen they convince her workers to change allegiance and feed the next generation of cuckoo bee grubs.

Cumbria Wildlife Trust is restoring hay meadows, which help to support bees and many other species. To find out more visit http://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/what-we-do/conservation-projects/...

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