Sept 2018 - The Plight of the Bumblebee

Published in Charlbury Chronicle September 2018

Wild bumblebees need our help. The wide use of pesticides and the decline of wild flowers in the countryside means we need to select flowering plants in our gardens to give bumblebees a good safe supply of food. Bumblebees need nectar and pollen from the crocuses of early March right through to the michaelmas daisies of autumn. They will repay us, not just by being a delightful sight and sound in our gardens but also by pollinating our tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, apples, pears, etc, etc. Amazingly, tomatoes are only pollinated by the buzz pollination of bumblebees – or a C128 tuning fork – honeybees just won’t do! The bumblebee grasps the tomato flower with her legs, she bites into the top of the anther on the stamen, and her powerful chest muscles vibrate so much that the pollen hidden inside spills out all over the hairs on her body which she then grooms into the pollen baskets on her legs. Adult bumblebees get energy from feeding directly on sugary nectar from flowers but the growing young bumblebees back at the nest need the high protein found in pollen.

There are about 270 species of bee recorded in the UK, of these, 25 are bumblebees but only 6 bumblebee species are commonly seen. However, if you have the right selection of flowers in your garden you will be very likely to see all 6 species. Identify a bumblebee by looking at its tail: red, white, or buff, then look at the coloured bands on its body and then its face ( Bumblebees need a range of flower shapes because different species have different length tongues through which they suck the nectar up from the flowers. Some need flat flowers like sunflowers and some need the long tubes of foxgloves and honeysuckle.

Those of you visiting the new Health Centre at Chipping Norton might have noticed the bumblebee-friendly bed of flowers at the entrance, this was planted in September 2016. The selection of plants was recommended by Applegarth Nursery at Chippy, where you can always be sure to find plants that are good for bees. Most bedding plants are not bee-friendly because they have been bred for showy flowers at the expense of good pollen and nectar. So instead, select aquilegias, marjorams, nepetas, betony, hyssop, salvias, rosemary, calamintha, and pulmonaria - have a look at lists of suitable flowers and shrubs on

Climate change is undoubtedly affecting the range of bumblebees, species are generally having to move north to try to find suitable habitats. In the UK we now have the tree bumblebee from France which is easy to recognise with its tan coloured back, this nests high up and has a liking for nesting in bird boxes. Our native bumblebees generally nest underground in old tunnels under hedgerows made by small rodents. Only the queens overwinter, so hopefully they will survive the coming winter under the plentiful hedgerows around Charlbury, make their nests in the spring and then the newly emerged workers will make a bee-line for your garden. Yes, bumblebees really do fly in a straight bee-line to feed regularly on their favourite flowers, what’s more they cover distances of 2-3 miles at 30mph!

Charlbury Green Hub