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Sunday, 3 July 2011

Bumblebees under threat

bumblebee on agapanthus in an Essex nursery

I've been researching and writing about bumblebees wearing my 'professional' hat (for the 'Dobies of Devon' e-newsletter and blog), encouraging readers to create nesting sites and grow flowers that will tempt bees into their garden. We've actually been watching bees here in our Cotswold garden for a long time, ever since one very hot summer a few years back when we were visited by a bee we had never seen before - large and totally black. I bought, at great expense, 'Collins Field Guide Insects of Britain and Northern Europe'; over 300 pages of extremely detailed information and colour plates.

We discovered that not all bumbles have recognisable names (like the white-tailed bumblebee), and when we finally thought we had identified it, discovered that it normally resides on the continent. We only ever saw the one, but it stayed with us whilst our annual flower border was at its most prolific (in terms of providing nectar). We had a visitation again the following summer, this time there were more large males - the females are much smaller - we hoped they were here to stay.

We have looked for them each year since, and whereas we are attracting many species of bumble, have never seen these black ones again. Perhaps the exceptionally cold winters two years in a row have killed them off. We spent hours trying to photograph it and realised how difficult it is to capture a bumblebee in its entirety, for they curl there body into the flower on which they are feeding. 

this wasn't meant to be a red-white-and-blue border; it's just the way it happened, the important bee plant is the exhium

We joined the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and now regularly receive their interesting newsletter; we garden for wildlife, creating habitats attractive to all manner of creatures; we leave the best bee-plant of all - Echium - to self-seed (it has taken over the whole border!) and we are still trying for the perfect photograph. 

one of our better pics - you can actually see the whole bee!

As to whether we will ever see the black one again, well it's a bit like the summer of the spotted flycatcher and chiffchaff - and we did manage good pics of those.


  1. Fascinating post, Ann, and such useful links. Don't give up hope the black bees may yet return. I remember visiting Bath University's garden open day a few years ago and, like everyone else there, being captivated by the sight of a humming bird hawk month - a visitor from Africa. Now they are getting commoner, but I haven't seen one since. The map on http://www.butterfly-conservation.org/sightings/1096/humming_bird_hawk_moth.html tells me they are getting closer to my new garden in Lancashire. What was the name of your black bee!

  2. Laurie, if I identified it correctly it was in Latin - no colloquial name - and I'I'd have to look it up. I'll be doing a post on butterflies shortly - either here, or on the Dobies of Devon blog or in their e-news. It must be the latter for I've just sent off copy and think I proof-read it today, so should go 'live' tomorrow.

  3. I will never become expert at identifying birds, insects or even plants, but the interest and the searching adds so much richness to daily life.

  4. I feel that looking after the bees is very important. The warmer weather is coming now and all the fox gloves that I planted have come out! (very good for honey bees because of all the pollen they hold.) - so we planted lots in our garden. And they look so pretty! :) Keep Caring for Bees!