Have you Seen a Winter Bumblebee?

Bumblebee colonies die in late Summer early Autumn leaving only mated Queens to hibernate over Winter and emerge in Spring to start up new colonies – at least that’s what the books say!  Over the last few years more and more bumblebees have been seen flying around in the depths of winter.  So what’s going on????

Queen Bombus Terrestris (Buff Tailed Bumblebee)

Queen Bombus terrestris – Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Photo: by me)

I had an email recently from my friend Stuart at the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) asking me to look out for “winter active bumbles”, I thought you might like to have a look as well?

Why’s it happening?

It seems that some queens are starting new colonies in the Autumn instead of going into hibernation. It’s these queens that are sometimes seen, and their workers that are actively foraging on mostly non-native flowering plants (in peoples gardens).  Due to warmer winters?

Others suggests that Bombus terrestris  (Buff tailed bumblebee) colonies, that are being raised in nest-boxes “year round” and placed in glasshouses to pollinate commercially grown tomatoes, are starting to lose their hibernating instinct. When some escape it seems only natural that they might turn up in our winter gardens.

Bombus Lucorum (White Tailed Bumblebee

Queen (?) Bombus cryptarum (Photo: from Wikipedia)

Where are they?

For the last few years sightings have been mainly in the South of England, along the Western Coast and South Wales but now they are being spotted in London (a colony has been seen in the Wildlife Garden at the Natural History Museum… under the noses of some of the top entomologists!), in Shropshire, Leicestershire and last winter in North Wales.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee Queen

Soggy Queen Bombus terrestris – Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Photo: by me)

How’s it possible?

I didn’t realise this but bumbles are apparently able to fly at quite low air temperatures. As long as it’s about 9 or 10 degrees Celsius they can be very active flying and foraging for food. I’m told that even in temperatures just above freezing, there still seems to be considerable activity

Although it’s blimin cold at the moment there have been plenty of days this warm in November in Southern England, the South West, the Central Southern Regions and the Midlands.

This got me thinking about previous years, so I got onto the Met Office website and had a look at the actual average temperature highs (daytime) for last winter and the one before. I thought you might like to see what I found… so I’ve made you a couple of really lovely line graphs (yes, I know I’m very, very sad – but stick with me!!).

Winter 2006/2007 (Dec, Jan, Feb)

Winter 2006/2007

In 06/07 England SE & Central S, England SW & Wales S and East Anglia were in the 9-10 degree Celsius “bumble zone” all three months. While even the Midlands nipped into the zone in January 07 and England E & NE and England NW & N Wales were only a degree away!

Winter 2007/2008 (Dec, Jan, Feb)

Winter 2007/2008

Last Winter we started with a cold December but England SE & Central S, England SW & Wales S, the Midlands and East Anglia were all in the “bumble zone” in January and February 08.

NB. Sorry Scotland you were just toooooo cold to get on the graphs!

So where should I look?

If you walk a specific path on a regular basis that would be a great place to start. If not your garden, neighbours garden, parks… anywhere really that you can see some flowers.

There has been some analysis of the winter flowers they seem to like. I’ve put together a “top 14 winter bumble flowers”:

  1. Mahonia cultivars (prickly leaves, yellow spikes of flowers)
  2. Erica cultivars (heathers)
  3. Rhododendron pachysanthum
  4. Ulex europaeus (Common gorse)
  5. Fuchsia
  6. Hedera helix (Common Ivy)
  7. Viola cultivars
  8. Senecio (Daisy family ie ragworts, groundsels)
  9. Antirrhinum majus (Snapdragon)
  10. Chrysanthemum
  11. Clematis cirrhosa
  12. CyclamenJasminum (Jasmine)
  13. Lonicera (Honeysuckle)
  14. Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary)

So go in search of any of these plants and you might just spot a bumble and as the winter progresses, it’s very likely the choice of forage plants will shift as new ones become available, and others go over.

bombus terrestris

Bombus terrestris  – Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Photo: From wikipedia)

What Species am I looking for?

In the main it seems to be Bombus terrestris (Buff tailed bumblebee)  that are being spotted, and a few Bombus pratorum (Early bumblebee) see picture below.

Bombus terrestris queens have a buff brown band of colour at the end of the abdomen.  (See pictures above.)

If you look really carefully, terrestris workers have really dark “old-gold” banding, a whitish tail, with a hint of buff at the point where the white hairs join with the black hairs (if you can get that near!).

Bombus pratorum

Bombus pratorum – Early bumblebee (Photo: from Wikipedia)

What do I do if I see one?

Really simple.. first scream, run around trying to find your camera and jump up and down a lot (sorry that’s just me!) you should try to record the following (or as much as you possible can):

  • species of bumblebee
  • whether a queen (big) or a worker bee (small)
  • where you saw it (postcode, grid reference or village/town would be great)
  • date you saw it
  • the recorders name
  • name of person identifying the bee (if different from recorder)
  • a photograph (if possible) as it really helps verification
  • the flower(s) being visited (if you can ID them)
  • a note of whether the bee was carrying pollen (yellow on it’s legs)

Then you can either leave the information in the comments section below or email it to me at jane(at)naturewatched.org or send it straight to Stuart Roberts, BWARS at spmr@msn.com

Me? I’m going out to buy a bright yellow blousey Mahonia this weekend with my Christmas money! Here come the Bumbles!

Pictures are either mine (taken this Summer or are copyright free from Wikipedia)
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32 thoughts on “Have you Seen a Winter Bumblebee?

  1. Bumblebees. They’re great eh?!
    I’ve always been fascinated by their ability to steal a march (quite literally sometimes) on other species because of their ability to warm themselves up with their wings! They’re cute AND clever!
    I saw a big Buff-tail yesterday, even though it was WELL below 9c, and I reckon its only a matter of a year or two before the Red Tails come out earlier in the year, or go through the winter.
    The last Bumblebee I saw “in normal time” this year in the garden was a RedTail.

    Fascinating post Jane. Thanks.
    By the way – have a great Hogmanay and a fantastic 2009!
    Doug and Anna.

  2. Pete. I know… I didn’t either until I started finding out more about them. Fascinating little creatures. Good luck with your bee hunt. Interesting that you have already seen some… hope you see them again. Jane

  3. Terry. Thanks for that. Where about’s are you in the country? Could you tell if it was a Queen or a Worker (much smaller)? If you are able to keep an eye on this Mahonia over the next month or so and report any further sightings, that would be great. If you have a camera a photo would be brilliant. Thanks again. Jane

  4. Doug & Anna. Fascinating, yes… but very hard to ID! Could you give me some more info about the Buff-tailed you saw or have you emailed Stuart at BWARS with the info? Don’t suppose there is any chance you could ask your Flickr mates if they have seen any. Thanks. Jane

  5. Pingback: Ice flowers « Hagbourne Wildlife

  6. Seen 2 or 3 bumblebees on several days in the last few weeks in sunny but cold (3-6*) weather.
    They are buff tails, I think, and are on what I believe is a hebe (autumn glory) in the front garden, which still has a few spikes of flower and colour
    We live in West Sussex, about 1/2 a mile form the coast. PO10 8JP
    Just saw and enjoyed but will look in more detail next time!

  7. Many thanks Jackie. I will pass the information on to BWARS. Lets hope the weather warms up a bit and you are able to see a few more. I haven’t seen “one” yet! Jane

  8. Hi Dragonstar. Don’t worry, that’s the beauty of blogs – you can pick them up and put them down whenever you want. I’m looking forward to visiting your blog in 2009. Jane

  9. Hi Jane, great posting and well researched. I’ve noticed flying bumblers over the winter for the last few years now, many insect species are in chaos in terms of life cycles. Last buff tail was in mid December outside the works canteen. Fab photo too at the top of this posting.

  10. Hi Andrew. Thanks for the record of the buff tailed. The top pic was taken in the garden in the summer as I chased the bees around (much to their annoyance!).

  11. A queen bee flew into our consevatory today 1/3/09, the weather is bright and sunny. We live in South Manchester post code SK8 4PE. Is this the first of the year and will it survive?

    • Thanks for your comment Bryan. I don’t suppose you know what type it was? Did it look like the Queen Buff Tailed Bumblebee at the top of this post? I will let my friend at BWARS know what you have told me. Any other info you can give would be great. I should think it will survive (as long as the weather doesn’t go sub-zero again). Keep an eye out for it… you may see it again if it’s a nice sunny day.

  12. Hi Jane, I recorded terrestris activity in Hammersmith Park, London throughout the winter. I recorded numbers for the BBCT, and can forward you my data if that would be any use to you? Kate

  13. bumblebees, type not identified, flying regularly to mahonia outside back door, nest not identified but one previous year in immediate vicinity.temperature at time 3deg C. Also noted last year. bristol

    • Many thanks for the information John. I expect it is a Bombus terrestris (Buff tailed bumblebee) as they seen to be the most common winter bumblebee. Would be interesting to know if it is a queen or a worker. If you see it again and are able to take a photograph – I’d love to see it! Thanks again. Jane

  14. I have just rescued a queen (I think B, terrestris) from a Clematis cirrosa flower. I think the temperature had dropped suddenly and she was in a torpor.
    We warmed her up and gave her some honey and will put her out again in the morning.
    PL24 2EN Cornwall 06/12/13 5pm.

  15. Brought bee in from cold this morning thought it was dead at first, but it started move quite quickly when in the warmth,tried some honey but don’t think it touched it.I have just taken it out to the garden and it has flown away,hope it survives.

  16. I live in Dumfries in Scotland I cannot believe I have just seen a bumble bee in my garden. It was slightly big black with a red orangey tail. The temperture is 14 c cloudy just had a lot of rain over weekend leading to floods in the area. Was a lively wee thing

    • That is very early. I wonder if it’s a queen who has come out of hibernation. Did you manage to see it feeding (just wondered what it was eating) and was it very big? or was it a tiddler? Although we get colonies in the Winter down here in Dorset, I imagine it would be very unusual to find one in Scotland. Fascinating!

  17. Hi I’ve just sen a huge bee, possibly a Queen bee around my flowers (cyclamen ) I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo, but I will be on bee watch from now on 🙂

    • Ooo, that’s exciting. It’s been so warm I’m not sure if it’s queens coming out of hibernation, or winter colonies. Would love to see a photo if you manage to get one. Thanks! 🙂

    • Not surprised this year – should be an easy year for them if this weather continues. We had a colony last year foraging from mahonia throughout the winter outside our local co-op!

  18. saw a bumble bee near Heathrow airport on 15 dec..it was walking along a pavement..did not see it fly
    but was surprised as it was o545 am

    • It’s been so warm this December. I heard the other day that night time temperatures this week in the south have been higher than night time temps in JULY! I wonder if this one eventually got airborne.

  19. Bumblebee seen, no idea what species.
    Possibly Queen, as I saw it from inside, it was about 3m away
    Seen at CW1 3YX
    Seen on 10.3.2017
    By me, Mhairi Gordon-Preston
    I think it was flying over/hovering around a species of Mallow and over Dandelions
    3m is too far to spot whether it was carrying pollen

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