Frequently asked questions
I have seen a bee that has many small creatures clinging to it.
Most bumblebees have many tiny mites clinging to their bodies. In most cases the mites are difficult to see, but sometimes they can cover large parts of the bee’s body. The good news is that most of the mite species that live with bumblebees are fairly harmless to them, and are simply clinging to the bumblebee so that they can be transported to new nests. When in the nest, the mites usually feed upon the wax, pollen, nest debris, and other small insects, so do not feed on the bees. However, they may present a problem if an individual bee becomes so heavily infested that it is unable to fly because of the weight of the mites.
When they reach a certain stage in their life cycle, the mites cling to worker bees, which transport them out of the nest, where the mites let go and climb onto flowers. From these flowers, the mites then attach to other visiting bees, and get transported to new nests.
If bees are covered in many mites, you can try to remove some by gently brushing them with a child’s paintbrush.
Some mite species can be more harmful however. For example, one species, Locustacarus buchneri, lives in the tracheal system of queen bumblebees. This species then lays up to 50 eggs in the respiratory system of the bee, and the young develop inside the queen’s body. It is not known if infections like these definitely do harm the bees though.
I have found a bumblebee nest in my garden/shed.
You are very lucky if you have found a bumblebee nest - many people have them in their gardens, but not many people ever come to realise it!
Bumblebees thankfully are not at all aggressive and only rarely sting when handled roughly. They might get aggravated if you interfere with the nest itself, but not if you're just passing by. They don't swarm and certainly don't 'attack' like wasps or honey bees. They should just get on with life and do their own thing - doing a wonderful job of pollinating plants, wildflowers and your vegetables. Even the very largest nests produce very little "traffic" in and out, so you won't see threatening numbers of bees at any point during the summer.
The colony only lasts one summer - it will have finished by September/October at the latest (quite possibly much earlier) and all of the bees will have gone. It is possible (although not particularly likely) that a different bumblebee queen will find and use the same hole next year.
If the bees are living under your shed, and are coming up through holes in the floor, then this is probably because it's the easiest way in and out for them. If you make a different hole, from the outside of the shed, and then block up the hole they were using, then they should happily take to their new route.
Read the section below if you would like to remove the nest. Please note that we do not move colonies ourselves.
I want to move/remove a bumblebee nest.
As mentioned above, bumblebees are not at all aggressive, seldom sting, and are very easy to live with. We very much hope that people will only try to move nests that are in a particularly inconvenient location. Underground nests will be more difficult to move, as you'll create a considerable amount of disturbance as you dig down to the nest. However, if it's outside and underground then there should be no reason to move it.
If you do need to move it, you will either need to do this yourself or get help from 'pest control' specialists (who will most likely destroy the colony). Please note that we do not move colonies ourselves.
We have more detailed information about bumblebee nests and how to move them, which you can read by clicking here.
I'm seeing dead bees in my garden - is this normal?
Bumblebee nests grow throughout the season, and produce new males and queens in autumn. Throughout the life of the nest a large number of smaller worker bees help the nest to grow by collecting nectar and pollen - these are the bees that you see out and about in summer. These workers only live two weeks or so, and then sadly die. It's therefore quite normal to see a small number of dead bees in the garden. So long as you are still seeing live bees in the area, then it's unlikely to be something new that we should be worrying about.
Bumblebees, like many insects in fact (and humans!) sometimes suffer from different parasites which live inside them. These parasites can make the bees appear slow and sluggish, perhaps even drunk! Again, sad as this may seem, it is a natural process that has been going on for many many years, and is not at the root of the problem. Equally, bumblebees may sometimes seem very lethargic just because the weather is cold - but they will recover when it warms up.
Having said all of the above, if anyone begins to notice large numbers of dead bees across a large area, coupled with very few live bumblebees in the area then it's just possible that a disease outbreak has occurred. If you are seriously worried that this may be happening then please contact us at email@example.com.
How do I provide nesting sites for bumblebees?
You can help bumblebees by providing them with somewhere to nest. The first step of course is to provide lots of the right kinds of flowers in spring. At this time of year the nest-searching queens will be attracted to gardens where they can find plenty of food to help them produce their first batch of eggs. Once she is ready to lay, the queen will start looking for a nest site. She flies low over the ground in a zig-zag pattern, stopping to investigate holes in the ground, or piles of leaves.
For information on the best flowers to plant for bumblebees, visit our Bee kind tool.
Advice on boxes of live bumblebees
Why not try and encourage bees to nest in your garden naturally using the advice above?
It is now possible to buy boxes of live Buff-tailed bumblebees of the sub-species native to the UK. Look for the wording 'Bombus terrestris audax'. The colony will last for a few summer months before naturally dying. There are excellent opportunities for the educational use of these colonies and pollination benefits in some circumstances.
Some people have expressed concerns about negative consequences of using these colonies. Buff-tailed bumblebees occur throughout most of the UK so their introduction will have little or no ecological consequences through competition. There are a few places where this species does not occur however, including the Outer Hebrides and other Scottish islands, and it would be prudent not to release this subspecies in areas where it is not naturally present. Bumblebees such as these are imported commercially on a large scale for use in glasshouses and polytunnels. Research is ongoing to establish beyond reasonable doubt that there are no disease risks associated with this trade. The choice of whether or not to purchase a single live bumblebee colony will make very little difference to the total risk of disease importation, relative to the risks associated with the widespread use of live bumblebees in horticulture.
When deciding whether or not to purchase a live bumblebee colony, individuals will need to ask themselves a few questions:
- Am I using this colony for educational purposes – to teach children about bumblebees and how to help them, for example?
- Am I keen to boost the pollination of fruits, vegetables and wildflowers in my garden or allotment?
- Am I concerned about declining bees and wishing to help their populations?
If the motivation for the purchase is primarily for educational use then this is something that we would support. We would be happy to provide factsheets and other materials to help with raising awareness of the importance of bumblebees and how to help them. If for pollination, there are some situations for some crop species that an increase in pollination may be expected (Buff-tailed bumblebees have short tongues and will be especially effective in pollinating tomatoes, peppers and fruits. They are less well suited to deep flowered crops such as peas and beans). When these colonies are used in both educational and pollination contexts we would encourage people to ensure that the colony has access to plenty of suitable flowers throughout the spring and summer to ensure that it (and other bumblebee colonies in the area) remain well fed and healthy. A list of recommended plants can be found on our website.
If the motivation underlying a potential purchase is to help stop the decline in our bumblebee populations then in our view it is more important to address the primary cause of these declines, which is the dramatic drop in wildflowers in the wider countryside. Planting cottage garden flowers in your garden, managing community green spaces to encourage wildflowers or joining the Bumblebee Conservation Trust would be a more effective method of helping our wild bees. In much the same way as you wouldn’t stock a dried out riverbed with fish and expect them to thrive, it seems unwise to place live bumblebee colonies in an otherwise sterile environment. The UK needs rivers of flowers.
“Bumblebees are one of the most endearing insect visitors to any garden. Their furry, colourful bodies and clumsy flight always raise a smile, but they also do an essential job. Without their pollination services many flowers would produce no seeds, and fruit and vegetable yields would suffer.”