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WILDLIFE: Spring is giving us a great old buzz

April 15th, 2023 11:50 AM

WILDLIFE: Spring is giving us a great old buzz Image
A female red-tailed bumblebee with a pollen basket on her hind leg, collecting pollen to feed the nest, seen in Barleycove last August. (Photos: Ann Haigh)

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IT’S an exciting time of year, spring flowers such as celandines, wood anemones, dandelions and the humble daisy are out in force. We have seen our first cuckooflower, also known as lady’s smock, in bloom. This pretty flower gained its name as it is traditionally said to bloom at the same time as the cuckoo’s arrival. Sadly I haven’t heard a cuckoo for years near our house, but I’ll still be keeping my ears open. Insects are active too and we have also seen butterflies, hoverflies and the first green shiny dock beetle of the year, to name just a few. Blossom is starting to show on the apple trees and birds are beginning to nest and sing their hearts out. The natural world is definitely awakening, and after a long winter these signs are very welcome indeed.  

For me, there’s hardly anything more delightful than spotting the first bumblebee of the year. Have you noticed your first bumblebee yet? If you haven’t, keep your eyes and ears open as the warmer weather and the occasional appearance of the sun has awoken them from their winter slumber. 

Ireland’s bees

In Ireland we have 21 species of bumblebee, 79 species of solitary bee and one native species of honeybee, giving us a total of 101 bee species. Besides the number of them, there are other reasons why we can be forgiven for sometimes getting confused when identifying these creatures. There are similarities between certain bees and wasps and there are also hoverflies that deliberately mimic the appearance of bees, as a form of defence. Predators steer clear as they mistakenly believe them to be capable of stinging, a clever quirk of nature called Batesian mimicry. 

New species have also arrived on our shores. Recent arrivals include two new solitary bees, the ivy bee found in late 2021 and the hairy-footed flower bee photographed in Harold’s Cross last year. Due to climate change it is likely that more new species will be able to cross from the UK and establish here.

This is sadly countered by many native Irish species being threatened with extinction due to challenges such as habitat loss, use of pesticides, disease and climate change itself. The great yellow bumblebee is on the verge of disappearing forever from Ireland, just for one example.

Hardworking females

Focusing on our bumblebees specifically, the queen bumblebee spends the winter alone, buried in soil to protect herself from the harsh winter conditions. She survives under-ground by using her fat stores and now as queens start to emerge from their hibernation, they need to feed quickly to restore their energy. Once fed on flower nectar, they are currently seeking out suitable nesting spots. These can include holes in the earth, such as old animal burrows, spaces under garden sheds or cavities in trees or stone piles. The queen collects flower pollen and nectar as a food source to stock the nest for her future larvae, making a mound of pollen and self-produced wax (a pollen loaf) and filling specially crafted wax pots with nectar.

Once satisfied with the store in her nest, she lays eggs that were fertilised the previous year. She incubates this first batch herself, however they all hatch as female workers and they will share the care of her subsequent batches of eggs and the resulting larvae. The queen’s main job now is to remain in the nest and lay batches of eggs. 

The female workers will guard and clean the nest and forage for nectar and pollen to feed themselves and the larvae. For a time in spring and early summer you can be pretty sure that every bumblebee you see is a female. 

Males arrive later

Later in the summer, the bumblebee nests begin to produce offspring which are not workers. Males and females are produced so that reproduction can occur. Males do not collect pollen or contribute to the upkeep of the nest, but spend their time feeding on nectar from flowers and trying to mate. After mating, the females that are to become the new queens feed voraciously on pollen and nectar and convert this to body fat to store as energy for the long winter hibernation underground. The old queen, the males and the female workers all die and only the new queens survive until the following spring. However, let’s not worry too much about the dying of bees at the end of the summer for now, let’s take the time to enjoy the buzz of having the whole summer ahead of us, full of the sights and sounds of our wonderful West Cork nature. 

White tailed bumblebee, with proboscis extended, seen last month feeding on gorse at The Marsh in Skibbereen.

Bumblebee facts 

    • Only females can sting and they can sting more than once. However, they will only sting as defence when threatened.
    • Bumblebees have powerful wing muscles that they can ‘disconnect’ from their wings, allowing them to shiver these muscles to generate heat before reattaching them for flight.
    • We have six species of cuckoo bumblebees in Ireland. These are bees that take over the nest of other bumblebees. A female cuckoo bee invades, kills the queen and lays her own eggs, using the nest’s workers to rear them.
    • Unlike honeybees, bumblebees do not make honey. Instead they store nectar in wax pots as a store of food. These stores are more limited than honey and makes bumblebees more vulnerable to starvation if bad weather means the bees cannot fly to get food. 
    • Bumblebees use a cross between a tongue and straw, known as a proboscis, to lap up nectar from flowers. Different species have different length proboscises which are adapted for certain flower types. The first bees to emerge in spring have shorter ‘tongues’ which are matched to our native spring flowers such as primroses and dandelions, which don’t require the bees to dig deep to access the nectar.

• Ann Haigh MVB MSc MRCVS is a Skibbereen resident, a mum-of-two and a veterinarian with a masters in wildlife health and conservation and she is passionate about biodiversity and nature.  

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