I'm writing this in these strange times where we're only allowed out of our homes for essential reasons, but one benefit I've noticed is how much fresher the air seems with less traffic and fewer aeroplanes. The birds are singing and the bees buzzing in the spells of warm sunshine in late March and early April.
I do know a little bit about birds, thanks to a good RSPB book, so can recognise them on the bird table, but I don't know much about bees.
I saw one the other day which was quite big and had a furry white bottom with the traditional black and gold stripes on its abdomen. It was a white tailed bumblebee. I knew it was a bumblebee, but until checking, I hadn’t realised quite how many different kinds there are in the UK - about 24 - although many are now rare.
My white tailed one is quite common across the British Isles. Nesting in gardens, woods and farmland they often live in abandoned rodent holes in fields and meadowland. The colony can consist of around 50 to 500 bees. Their queen overwinters, hibernating, and when conditions are right, will wake up and lay a clutch of eggs which hatch in two weeks. She feeds them on pollen. This first clutch of eggs is the only one she feeds and cares for herself.
These will grow into worker bees which clean and guard the nest as well as looking after the next clutches of baby bees as they hatch.
The bees born in late summer will be male bees (drones). These will fly off and mate with a queen in another nest and then die. The queen can live for a number of years before dying. She will now fatten herself up for the long winter hibernation and then the cycle starts again.
The red tailed bumblebee is very similar and I've seen a few of these now we're into April, They're usually a little later than the white tailed bee. Bumblebees play a huge part in our lives; they are pollinators, sometimes on warm summer days you can see the females going from flower to flower collecting pollen on their back legs. This cross-pollinates and fertilises the flowers that will then produce seeds for the next generation.
Without them and other insects Man would struggle to survive as about one-third of food production worldwide relies on pollination. If you think about it, animals eat grass...grass is grown from seed. ... seeds need bees! Sadly in recent years the number of bees has fallen, the use of pesticides has decimated many species, as has loss of habitat, another problem is viruses.....and we all know too well how contagious they can be and the impact they can have on a population! One virus carried by honeybees is called the Deformed Wing Virus and has a catastrophic effect on whole colonies. It’s a worldwide problem too. In Brazil in 2019 it’s estimated 500 million bees died in only three months. Forest fires were blamed as they killed the trees and burnt the land.
When I was researching UK bees I found many different species besides bumblebees, such as Miner bees, Masonry, Carpentry and Leaf Cutter bees. Some are hardly distinguishable from one another; there are over 200 species of bees in the UK although some very rare.
The contrast between bumblebees and honey bees is quite distinct so I decided to research these next.
Honey bees, it seems, and can fly at about 20 mph and their hives can contain 50,000 bees
They are about 15 mm long, slimmer and less furry than a bumblebee and light brown with golden yellow bands. There is only one queen in a hive, like the bumblebees, and 99% are female worker bees The males only hatch later in the year to fertilise the eggs. The worker bees do everything in the hive, and being “as busy as a bee" is so true. These busy females clean the hive, feed the young, attend to the queen and defend the hive from attack. Sadly if a female worker has to resort to using her sting she will die. Her other task is to go out foraging to bring the nectar and pollen back to the hive.
Wild honey bee colonies usually nest in hollow trees but sadly there are fewer of these wild nests nowadays. Beekeepers have specially-built hives and each one will house a queen. I've just read that archaeologists have found traces of us, homo sapiens, beekeeping going back 9,000 years...amazing..
The bees are such clever little creatures inside the hive they use their own beeswax to create small perfect hexagons that fit snugly together in the hive, these will contain either the eggs, pollen or honey. It’s sealed with something called propolis, a combination of beeswax and sap from the needles of conifer trees, its anti-everything it seems, antiviral/fungal /bacterial and anti-inflammatory ....I always thought honey was good for us. Bees have communication skills too, very organised it seems. They can produce scents meaning happiness or danger and dancing alerts nearby bees to a good source of food.
As with bumblebees the worker honeybees carry the pollen on their back legs. If one lands on a flower you can see this quite easily: sometimes on hot sunny days her legs are so heavy with pollen she can hardly take off! Nectar is also collected by the bees from a different part of the flower. The bee sips the nectar then passes it on to the next bee until the water content is low and it has become honey..... It’s then taken back to the hive to feed the young.
It’s now Easter as I finish this and gloriously warm and sunny. The bumblebees are everywhere; especially on the plum and cherry blossom....hopefully a bumper crop of fruit later this year. I saw both the white and the red tail ones as well as some peacock butterflies and a glimpse of a soft, yellow brimstone butterfly too.
I'm lucky to have these trees in my garden and I don't need to go out during this time of social isolation, but don't forget that around Barrow there are some lovely areas to walk along. The river towpath is a nice walk as is the Millennium Park on Fishpool Way with its striking gnomon. Another suggestion for finding wildlife near you during our allowed exercise period is to walk around the roads where you live and the country lanes and look for the bees! Everywhere is so quiet and peaceful you could find places that you didn't know existed especially around the older parts of Barrow near the War Memorial. Then try the new houses that are beginning to look more settled in.
And there’s the Barrow Fossil trail. Find out about the Barrow Kipper and lots more. The fossil trail is online and you can print out its pages to guide you around. There’s no need to go places far afield when we are lucky to have so much of interest on our doorsteps. Keep safe and well