Something buzzing in the bird box

My neighbour Roly sent me a text this lunchtime to ask whether I am a beekeeper. It turned out that some bees had decided to make their home in his bird feeder. Excited, I put on my bee suit and went over. It turned out we had about half a dozen bumblebees flying in and out. We had found a bumblebee nest. They were too fast for me to be able to get a photo, but,

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust's tips for identification and its species guide helped us out here.

Broadly, there are two kinds of bumblebee — social and cuckoo. Cuckoo bumblebees are parasitic in the nests of social bumblebees, but are rarer. Cuckoo bumblebees have no hair on their legs, and therefore lack the pollen baskets (corbiculae) for carrying pollen. Roly's bees were carrying bright yellow pollen back to the nest in large corbiculae — and so they must've been social. Of the white-tailed bumblebees, only one has the ginger banding pattern we saw, namely Bombus hypnorum, the tree bumblebee. They are a twenty-first century newcomer to British shores, having first been seen in the UK in July 2001. They seem to prefer bird boxes, so that fits too. Studies show they are particularly fond of blackthorn and sloe trees.

The advice on moving nests seems to be as with honey bees — do it in the dark and only a metre at a time. Male tree bumblebees don't always realise a nest has been moved and hang around a few days before dispersing. Funnily enough, leaving a pot plant as a landmark for displaced bumblebees seems to help.

The population of a nest can number in the hundreds, but the bees are very likely to be docile unless provoked, and Roly decided not to move the nest, even though he has a young daughter. This is good to hear! The life cycle of a bumblebee nest is two to three months, so enjoying the new visitors for the summer seems to be a good way to go. In a moment of inspirational wordplay, Roly referred to the new bumblebee accommodation as the air bee and bee, so I think he's as happy about the local nest as I am.