I bought this new book by Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, after hearing him speak at the ‘Future without bees‘ talk at the Southbank Centre. And it’s brilliant: entertaining, an insight into a life spent investigating nature and an education in all things bumblebee.
Amelia at A French Garden has already done a proper review of this fantastic book, so instead I thought I’d do a quick list of seven things I learnt from it:
1) Bumblebee workers in a particular species can vary in size dramatically (p.157-163).We only ever see the bigger foragers with large eyes and bigger brains out and about – there are smaller workers who spend most of their time hidden away in the nest rearing young. This is somewhat like ant castes and a different way of doing things to honey bees (worker honey bees are all the same size and graduate to more complex tasks as they get older).
2) Bumblebees are better suited to colder climates (p.31-34). Their furry coats help them keep heat in, and the contractions of their flight muscles – bumbles flap their wings 200 times per second – generates a lot of heat. This heat can be difficult to get rid of if the surrounding air temperature is high; if their body temperature exceeds 44°C they will die. For this reason, on very hot days in summer (like we’re having now in England) bumbles will tend to have a rest around midday and begin foraging again in the early evening as the air cools down. Dave once had a buff-tailed bumblebee colony that survived a night in the freezer at -30°C, the workers gathered over the brood, the queen in their centre.
3) The European commercial trade in bumblebees for pollination probably requires around 500 metric tonnes of pollen each year to rear the bumblebees (p.180-181). This pollen is bought in from honey-beekeepers all over Europe and is almost inevitably contaminated with a range of bee diseases. After the bumblebees consume the pollen they are despatched all over the world, very possibly spreading diseases to honey bees, other bumble bees or native bee species.
4) In the wild, some bumblebee species seem to get nearly all their pollen from legumes such as clovers, trefoils, vetches, peas and beans. Not all pollen is equal – legume pollen is especially rich in protein and essential amino acids which bees cannot manufacture themselves.
5) The UK bumblebee species struggling the most are particularly fond of clover, particularly red clover and other wild legumes such as tufted vetch and bird’s foot trefoil, that produce this protein-rich pollen (p.209-211). These plants also have deep flowers, requiring the long tongues that most of our rare bumblebee species possess – such as the great yellow, short-haired and ruderal bumbles. The rare species tend to be meadow specialists, favouring the legumes that grow in meadows and the deep meadow flowers. No wonder they are struggling – we hardly have any meadows left.
6) Dumbledore is an old English word for bumblebee, possibly originating in Somerset or Sussex (p.214). Cute.
7) Badgers are particularly fond of eating bumblebee nests in dry summers when worms have burrowed too deep for them to find (p.96). The bumblebee nests can be located by smell. Dave says “You can create a similar odour by pouring black treacle and sherry over a pair of dirty running socks, sealing them into a Tupperware box and then leaving it in a warm place for a month.”
Finally, a lovely quote from Dave, p.208:
“I began studying bumblebees not because they are important pollinators but because they are fascinating, because they behave in interesting and mysterious ways, and because they are rather lovable. But as I became more familiar with what was known about them, it was made clear that they were in urgent need of help.”
I always say this, but it’s particularly relevant for this book of all books – if you choose to buy it or indeed any other items from Amazon, please consider going through the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Fundraising page. Each time you access Amazon.co.uk via their link and make a purchase this brilliant charity receives a donation worth 8% of your total purchase, at no extra cost to you.
See also: ‘A brief history of how bees sexed up earth and gave flowers their colors‘, a grand review of the book by writer Maria Popova.