Sniffing Bumblebees

On Friday I had the pleasure of accompanying Stuart Roberts from BWARS on a survey of Upton Heath in Dorset (also in the parish of Corfe Mullen) for bees and wasps.

Common Carder Bee Bombus Pascuorum : Photographed in my Garden

You may remember that Stuart and I did the same thing about a month ago when we found some very interesting bees and wasps including a Velvet Ant Mutilla europaea (which is in fact a wasp… yes, I agree, it’s blimin confusing).

Although our species list was not as long this time, I have learnt some fascinating (and quirky) facts about bumblebees.

Fact One: “How does a bumblebee smell?” Answer, “Awful”. Sorry, it had to be said! This came to mind as Stuart held out a male Buff Tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, for me to sniff. It didn’t actually smell awful, it was in fact slightly sweet smelling.

Apparently this is caused by an alarm pheromone produced in their mandibular glands. If it was meant to scare me then I’m afraid poor old bumble failed. I’m sure if I’d been another bee I’d have been quaking in my boots.

Bell Heather on the Heath

Fact Two: Not all bumblebees sting. Male bumblebees don’t have a sting. However, the queens and workers (females – why does that not surprise me?) do sting, and they can sting again and again. Not that this is likely to happen as bumbles are usually very laid-back, but if you really piss one off… well, you have been warned.

Fact Three: Not all bumblebee nests are subterranean. In fact they turn up all over the place from bird-boxes to long grassy vegetation and tree holes. I know this is true as we spotted (OK, Stuart spotted) a Brown Banded Carder Bee nest, Bombus humilis, on the heath. These stunning little bumbles, sadly now a BAP species, were still busy chugging backwards and forwards to their grassy hidden haven.

A Vestal Cuckoo Bumblebee, Bombus vestalis, in my Garden

Fact Four: Bumblebees can be Cuckoos. If you thought that Cuckoos were the only thing to “nick” nests and lay their eggs for others to bring up, think again. Cuckoo bumblebees do pretty much the same thing.

The bee above is the Vestal Cuckoo Bumblebee, Bombus vestalis, and it “nicks” the nest made by the Buff Tailed Bumblebee Bombus terrestris. Now I may not get this exactly right but basically I believe the queen invades a Buff Tailed nest, kills the resident queen (and sometimes some of the workers), lays it’s own eggs and scarpers. Leaving the resident workers to bring up her kids.

As you can probably tell I’m really trying to improve my knowledge of bees and wasps. Trouble is it’s pretty daunting once you find out how many there are and how similar most of them are. My husband, Andrew, says it’s a bit like the film “Educating Rita”.

Oh well… I’m always up for a challenge!

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6 thoughts on “Sniffing Bumblebees

  1. There’s obviously a lot to learn. You’ve managed to teach me quite a bit this morning! I’d no idea there were so many Bumble Bees – or that they could sting repeatedly!

  2. Hi Dragonstar. I wasn’t sure whether to write this post, I’m really glad I did now, as it seems to have been quite useful to people. Yes, loads of bumbles still to learn… and soon they will disappear until next year (just when I was getting the hang of their names!)

  3. Doug. Thanks. They aren’t the easiest things to photograph, but I managed to get them drunk first on the buddleia, then they behaved perfectly as they staggered from flower to flower in slow motion! I know how you like “facts” glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Neil. Glad I managed to clear up that question for you. It’s one that I’ve been pondering a lot lately (especially when I’m about to pounce on a bee… trying to ID it).

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