It’s great to hear you’ve bought yourself a bee box; all around the world, bee numbers seem to be declining and although there are some possible explanations – including disease, habitat loss and pesticides – nobody seems entirely sure what’s going on. Bottom line – the more help these beneficial little insects can get, the better.
Unfortunately, you’ve probably missed your chance to establish your own bumble bee colony for this year – the queens look for nesting sites in the spring and by now each one will have been busily churning out eggs for some time. By this point in the summer, some species will already have colonies of hundreds of workers – all produced by a single nesting queen.
Even so, now’s a good time to think about where you could site your box for next year.
Setting Up Your Box
Most kinds of bumble bees naturally look out for nesting sites at ground level, usually along the edges of hedges or fences, so bear this in mind when you’re looking for a good site to locate your bumble bee box. Pick a suitable south-facing spot where the nest box will be warm and sheltered from the worst of the weather, but not exposed to direct sunlight.
Most bought types of bumble bee box come with a supply of nesting material, but if yours didn’t, dry moss or the sort of bedding pet shops sell for gerbils or hamsters is ideal.
With so many hedges lost from our countryside, natural nesting sites have been severely reduced over the past 70 or 100 years – and the loss of hedgerows also means that wildflowers, which form the bees’ natural source of food, are less common too. Add a well-positioned bee box to a garden full of attractive plants and you’re about as close to creating 5-star attraction for bumblebees as you can get!
Bumble Bee Biology
The nest is a vital part of the bumble bee life cycle – and it all begins with the queen.
Bumble bee queens are easy to spot – they’re huge! In the early spring, they emerge from holes in the ground where they’ve been hibernating over winter and start feeding on the available flowers – you’ll often see them on willow catkins or bluebells at this time of year. Their first job is to find a suitable nesting site, and they fly around fairly low to the ground looking for a good spot to set up home – which is, of course, where your box will hopefully come in, next year.
She will have mated last autumn, so she can start laying eggs at once and she quickly produces a clutch of all-female workers who look after her, tend the next generations of new bees (also workers) and go out foraging for food.
At mid-summer, the queen switches to producing both male and female offspring, in readiness for her own death in the autumn. These daughters are fed differently, developing not into workers, but into future queens themselves and as the year wears on, they leave the nest along with the males, mate and eventually find their own hibernating places, ready to begin the whole process all over again next year. Only these new queens will survive the winter; the males, their “sister” workers and the old queen will all die in the autumn.
There are many different kinds of bumble bees – and some species prefer to nest above ground – but a bumble bee box is a great way to improve your chances of having an army of willing helpers on hand to pollinate the flowers, fruit trees and vegetables in your garden.
Good luck with yours, come the spring!