The Plight of the Bumblebee

Reading time 9 minutes


I like bees, but I love bumblebees more. The sight of their comedically cumbersome bodies ambling across an umbel, or alighting delicately on a gossamer-thin petal never fails to amuse me. Bumblebees are amiable little creatures, disinclined to harass or sting humans, unlike some of their close relatives. They live in small colonies and tend not to swarm or make a general make a nuisance of themselves. And they are useful to boot, pollinating flowers that even the bravest honeybee cannot tackle.

According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the population of bumblebees in Britain has plummeted over the last eighty years. Two species have become extinct nationally and several others have declined dramatically. The blame for this collapse is mainly laid at the farmer’s door. Changing agricultural practices after WWII, especially the introduction of pesticides and the removal of flower-rich hedgerows, started the decline, but nurserymen and gardeners have also played a part. Over-hybridised flowers with complex double flowers or sterile blooms deprive bees of access to the pollen that they crave. Enlightened gardeners are waking up to the notion that single, uncomplicated flowers are not only more natural to look at, but also much more welcoming to pollinators.



Bumblebees are brilliantly adapted to pollination, a function which if not fulfilled would bring the natural world to a grinding halt. First of all, their disproportionately large bodies are covered in dense hairs which are forked at the tip. These help bumblebees to gather and transport pollen between flowers, pollinating as they go. Different species are equipped with different tongue lengths which are adapted to feed from different types of flower. Short tongues probe flowers with short corollas (the tube that leads to the nectar), leaving species with longer appendages to forage from more complex flowers with long corollas. This is why encouraging lots of biodiversity to your garden is so important. Finally, bumblebees are uniquely able to ‘buzz pollinate’. This involves them contracting their flight muscles to create strong, rapid vibrations which literally shake the pollen from a flower’s anthers, even if the flower is unwilling to give it up. If you listen carefully to a bumblebee ensconced in a particularly pollen-rich flower you will often hear this happening and see the bee dusted with its plunder. Crops such as tomatoes rely on this type of pollination to produce a good crop of fruit.



Bumblebees are social insects, living in nests of up to 400 individuals. A nest is led by a queen and exists for just one year. In contrast, honeybee hives may remain active for several years. In early spring the queen emerges from hibernation to start a new nest. Her first task is to build up her energy reserves so it’s really important that she can find plenty of pollen and nectar-rich flowers. This explains why the first bumblebees you will see in your garden on a warm February day tend to be super-sized – you are enjoying a right royal visit! Once the queen has found a suitable nest site she will rear her first batch of eggs. These will hatch to produce a group of female workers whose job it is to feed and nurture the colony. This process is repeated throughout the summer with the queen rarely leaving the nest. Towards the end of the summer the queen produces male offspring, along with new queens. After mating the males, which have lead in their pencil but no sting in their tail, die off, as do the old queens and workers. Only new, fertilised queens survive to hibernate through the winter and establish their own nests the following year.


Sedums are well known for attracting bees when they bloom at the end of summer
Sedums are well known for attracting bees when they bloom at the end of summer


If you want to attract more bumblebees to your garden there are a few simple things you can do. Firstly plan a succession of flowers starting from spring, right through to the end of summer. Bumblebee queens emerge very early in spring so greet them with some bright crocuses or forsythia which are easy to spot and packed with pollen. During summer, foxgloves, single roses, lavender, veronicastrums, teasels and a host of other flowers will sustain the burgeoning bumblebee population. In autumn, sedums, golden rod (solidago), cosmos, zinnias, Michaelmas daisies and nerines will help to fatten up the new queens for winter. Avoid double flowers where the anthers are hidden or even absent, and any varieties which are sterile (i.e. Don’t produce seeds). Pansies, begonias and double dahlias are especially unhelpful when it comes to attracting useful insects to the garden. Single flowers with large central bosses, such as daisies, and those with a profusion of flowers, such as the umbels, are perfect food factories for bees of all kinds.


Cosmos not only have single flowers but produce huge numbers of them through the summer
Cosmos not only have single flowers but produce huge numbers of them through the summer


Bumblebees tend to be ground or wall dwelling and, whilst nesting boxes can be provided in both situations, bees will be perfectly happy to find their own quarters provided you leave an undisturbed space in a dry shady corner of the garden. Insecticides should be employed minimally or not at all and should never be applied during the day when bees are actively foraging.


Single dahlias like D. 'Magenta Star' and D. 'Waltzing Matilda' are bee magnets
Single dahlias like D. ‘Magenta Star’ and D. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ are bee magnets


My observation in my own garden is that bumblebees and hoverflies now greatly outnumber honeybees. This seems to be borne out in other gardens I visit too. It’s tragic that any of these precious insects should be in decline as they provide gardeners and humankind in general with a service that would be impossible to replicate otherwise. Furthermore, what joy could there be in a garden without the comforting hum of bees going diligently about their work? We all have our part to play in reversing the plight of the bumblebee, so start now by planting a bag of crocus corms or an early flowering fruit tree to get them off to a happy, healthy start in 2017.

All videos made this weekend at The Salutation, Sandwich, Kent.

Click here for more information on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website.



Categories: Flowers, Garden Wildlife, Photography, Practical Advice

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

Greetings Garden Lover! Welcome to my blog. Plants are my passion and this is my way of sharing that joyful emotion with the world. You'll find over 1000 posts here featuring everything from abutilons to zinnias. If you've enjoyed what you've read, please leave a comment and consider subscribing using the yellow 'Follow' button in the bottom, right-hand corner of your screen. You will receive an email every time I post something new.

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13 comments On "The Plight of the Bumblebee"

  1. Great post, Dan, pollinators are fascinating. What I notice is that the different bees and wasps etc seem to monopolise different patches of flowers in the garden, except when it comes to mature ivy being in flower, like it is now – then it’s a very noisy free for all.

    1. I love to see the ivy plastered in busy bees! There’s a lot of it growing along the clifftops in Broadstairs where it becomes very shrubby and attractive over time. You’ve reminded me to go and take a closer look this weekend.

  2. I LOVE this post and the videos. Oh my gosh, that second one had me smiling from ear to ear. 🙂 Here in the US, there is a Zika mosquito issue in parts of Florida. Florida has huge revenues from tourists so they are spraying. Now, they are telling us that the spray is not hurting anything except this one little mosquito. I think we’ve read this book before and know the not so happy ending. You keep preaching the good word, Dan. 🙂

  3. I too have noticed very few honeybees (or related as I’m not able to identify the exact species). However, all of these insects have plenty of ticket flowers to go at right now and because that keeps on flowering, there is a constant supply 😊.

  4. I HATE BEE’S, I HATE THEM (…although they are delicious fried with a little parsley and garlic).
    Why should i allow them to take my pollen just so they can get fat on honey?
    If i catch a bee trying to pollinate a flower, or even trying pollinate me, then there will be serious consequences for that bee!
    Bees (like revenge) are a dish best served cold dan, so how about serving them on a cocktail stick with a cube of cheese and pineapple at your next open day.

  5. Oh, dont get me started on honey. Theres only one person getting rich from honey,…beekeepers.
    Think about it, 25kg honey per hive, £3.40 for a 300ml jar, it adds up to a considerable amount of monies. There was no recession for beekeepers, they were living the highlife selling us £10 a jar manuka honey from our stolen pollen.
    And of course its all undeclared earnings, none of them keep financial accounts (since al Capone) and when hmrc break their door down in a dawn raid they just consume the evidence. The average beekeeper can drink down 3 jars jars a minute in an emergency and a trained chocolate lab up to 6 jars a minute.

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