Talk Report: 09 January 2018 Gill Perkins: The Plight of the Bumblebee

Members recently enjoyed a fascinating talk by Gill Perkins, Chief Executive Officer of Bumblebee Conservation Trust.  This organisation, established 12 years ago is dedicated to protecting the UKs bumblebees which have suffered a rapid decline (including the loss of two species).  The reason is quite straight forward - in the last 75 years Britain has lost 97% of its’ wildflower meadows which the bumblebees have relied upon for food in the form of nectar produced by the flowers.  In so feeding the bees do the vital job of pollination. Most importantly they do the same for the country’s fruit and veg crops and indeed because of the structure of the flowers it is only bumblebees that can pollinate tomato plants.  Due to the drastic decline in the number of our bumblebees we import a staggering 65000 boxes of commercially reared bumblebees from abroad each year to make up the shortfall in pollinators.  This is by no means ideal as they could bring various pests and diseases with them, exposing our native bumblebees to them.  
An Early Bumblebee found during our outing to Ham Wall last May 
© Richard Coomber

At first glance one might wonder how a bumblebee can remain airborne with its large body and small wings: the secret is in the strength of the chest muscles coupled with a fast rate of wing beats.  We have six species of common bumblebee:  White-tailed, Buff-tailed, Garden, Early, Red-tailed and Common Carder.  To these may be added the Tree Bumblebee - a species which arrived more recently from France.  It tends to nest higher up than our native species and does not in any event conflict with them.  The bumblebee has a four stage life cycle.  Only the Queens survive the winter having mated and when they emerge they immediately look for a nesting place -an old mouse or vole burrow is ideal.  She will then construct a wax bowl in which to store the nectar she collects (the flowers of goat willow are particularly valuable at this time of year ) and lays eggs which hatch in five days; the larvae are dependent upon the collected nectar and are ready to pupate in three weeks.  These are all females and when they hatch their function will be to look after the Queen and to collect food.  In June/July unfertilised eggs are laid which will become male bumblebees.  These have a relatively easy life, their only function to mate which they will do with a Queen from a different nest from the one in which they were born.  The new Queen will then look for a cool secure place in which to hibernate and in the Spring the cycle begins again. 

It was explained that everyone can help in giving bumblebees a chance to recover their numbers by introducing to their garden flowers with high nectar content: examples are lavenders, alliums, mahonia and hellebores.  Unfortunately bedding plants are not much use for this purpose.  The other useful thing to do is of course to join Bumblebee Conservation Trust which is a science based evidence led charity.  It has worked with all four of the regional governments in the UK and in each case the result has been the establishment of a pollination strategy.  Apart from this high level work Bumblebee Conservation Trusts main areas of activity are creating and restoring wild flower habitats in the most needed areas, encouraging bee friendly gardening, advice to landowners, farmers and local councils as to how they can help,  working with schools to inspire the next generation and survey work to collect data.  Their website is

Tree Bumblebees using a bird's nest box
© Richard Coomber