I’d read about the rarity of bees nesting in your garden and didn’t think I’d be so lucky.
It’s an unusually sunny Spring. I’m out in the garden enjoying doing nothing when, all of a sudden, I’m bombarded with what sounds like a thousand bees.
At first, a bit whimpishly, I took cover, but then I realised I wasn’t being mobbed by an angry swarm of bees, the sun was still out, my radishes were ready to pick and life was still good. Interest piqued, I boldly set off on a potentially lethal backyard adventure to find out where the sound was coming from.
Intrepidly, I crossed the Lazy Man Bed, paying homage to the Bamboo Scarecrow as I crossed, navigated through the Hugulkultar Mountains and headed down and under the Great Weeping Pear Tree. My only guide was the surprisingly comforting, wild sound of a thousand bees in the distance.
Finally, I arrived. And was utterly chuffed to find that up there in the Pear Tree was what looked like a “swarm” of bees dancing around the Wooden Bird Box of Wu Wei.
My first thought was are they just passing through?
I’d read about the rarity of bees nesting in your garden and didn’t think I’d be so lucky. I sat and watched them for a while (ran to get the camera actually) and became more and more sure that they were indeed nesting.
I felt so lucky. Blessed, even.
Then I had a bit of a panic when I remembered I had two little kids (ages 2 and 5) and couldn’t possibly put them at risk by having bees nesting in the garden…
Thus; my quest for knowledge began.
What Kind of Bumblebee Nests in a Bird Box?
The first thing I wanted to know was: who were these bold creatures brave enough to nest so close to my family? Followed in rapid succession by a thousand other questions; Were they even bees at all? Would they sting me? How many would there be? Will they make honey? Should I move them? Are they dangerous? What’s for dinner?
My first port of call was Twitter. A quick vid and a few posts and hopefully I’d have some insight from people who’d experienced this themselves. There weren’t many…
Next; onward to the Oracle of Google (via DuckDuckGo to protect my privacy) and from there to the wonderful and brilliant Bumblebee Conservation Trust, whom showered me with a wealth of fascinating bee knowledge.
It was there that I discovered I’d been blessed by the presence of Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum).
Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum)
In a fascinating article written by Clive Hill, a beekeeper from High Wycombe & District Bee Keeper’s Association, I discovered that the Tree Bumblebee was a relatively new species of bee to the UK, being first ‘found’ here in 2001.
As I read the article, in a break from usual programming, I couldn’t help but think to myself that a lot of what I’d been bombarded with over the last few years about declining bee populations and pollinator-geddon was complete and utter nonsense.
I won’t go too much into why I feel this way, suffice to say that I think the world is in constant flux and always perfectly balanced, but what I can do to support my belief is link to two ‘researched’ papers that completely contradict one another. The sum of which reminds me why I choose to believe what I see for myself, rather than what I’m fed by someone else’s agenda.
Elizabeth Grossman, of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies said this, in 2013:
The danger that the decline of bees and other pollinators represents to the world’s food supply was highlighted this week when the European Commission decided to ban a class of pesticides suspected of playing a role in so-called “colony collapse disorder.”
And then this, in a publication titled Bee Population Rising Around the World from AgPro in January, 2015:
Europe’s bee numbers have been generally steady for the past two decades and have risen three of the past four years, according to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
As I study the information from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and read this great article by Clive Hill, I’m struck by the constant reference to a growing population of Tree Bumblebees across the country and now, of course, my own experience to boot.
This leads me to think that a lot of what I’d been fed about bee populations declining, crops failing, lack of pollination was all a bit blah, blah. That’s not because I’m flippantly suggesting it’s not happening but more likely – it just doesn’t fucking make sense. In my experience, nature never leaves a vacuum.
Just have a look at your veg patch in two weeks time after you spent all day today weeding it for an idea of what I mean!
Could it be the Bombus hypnorum is sweeping up the UK in ever-increasing numbers every year since 2001 to fill the void left by something else? I don’t know but I’m pretty sure my Dandelions will keep getting pollinated.
Which leads perfectly onto this…
Did My Dandelions Invite Tree Bumblebees to My Garden?
As I learned about how the Queen Tree Bumblebee searches for a new nest in late spring (after a winter in hibernation), I pondered on the reason why she chose my bird box to make her nest instead of all the others around here.
Two things struck me as genuine possibilities:
- My garden is the only one in the street that celebrates the emergence of Dandelions (and loads of other “weeds” too). Much to the irritation of all my in-laws who keep passively aggressively reminding me that ‘there’s a lot of dandelions this year’ and that an unkempt garden reflects a person’s character.
- My garden is a bit wild. And a bit of a wildlife sanctuary. Home to hedgehogs, frogs, birds and (now) bees!
Could the proximity to plenty of pollinator friendly wild weeds and volunteer plants be one of the reasons why Queen Bombus Hypnorum chose to settle down in my garden?
I don’t know, but I like to think so.
It’s Not all Bumblebees & Honey Though
Once I’d found out what they were, it was time to deal with the other major questions I had on my mind:
- Are they dangerous?
- How long will they stay?
- Will I get any honey!
It turns out the Bombus Hypnorum is not an aggressive bee, and will for the most part leave you alone as long as you don’t get too close to or disturb the nest in any way. They’re pretty amazing to watch, and you can view 20 mins of what they do in my youtube video here. You’ll see that guarding the nest are sentry drones that ‘dance’ in quite an aggressive fashion just outside the entrance.
I’ve got to say, I still feel blessed and lucky to host them, even if it is only for the summer. It turns out they only stay for the summer, leaving or dying out around the end of July and into August. By then the new queens will have left the nest and found their own secret places where they will hibernate through the winter and do it all over again next year.
It is recorded that a few queens start “second cycle colonies” in the Autumn, but according to Clive Hill, not much is known about this behaviour yet. I’d love to do what I can to contribute there.
But now for the question you all really want to know.
Do Tree Bumblebees Make Honey?
Yes, they do make honey! But apparently not enough to harvest.
Even strong Tree Bumblebee colonies only grow to around 300-400 bees whereas honeybees swarm in the thousands. Tree Bumblebees tend to make just enough honey to keep the colony alive, with a tiny surplus for the queens to take with them for the winter.
Alas! It seems that my accidental foray into the world of backyard beekeeping will be shortlived, a fleeting moment of fortune that may, in the end, be the one and only time I can call myself a Backyard Beekeeper.
I do, however, take comfort in the knowledge that my brief time as protector and caretaker of this small and wonderful bee colony is one tiny step in their journey that might lead to a thousand more years of pollinating backyard gardens across the country.
If you have bees or have experienced anything like this in your own garden, I’d love to hear from you and how you handled it throughout the season in the questions & comments below.