Winter bumblebees

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Wildlife writer Jane Adams is on the lookout for a winter wild bee fix – even in December you can find them, she says

A winter-active buff-tailed bumblebee, bombus terrestris, worker
All images © Jane Adams

I’m not a massive fan of winter. With the onset of colder, shorter days and lower light levels, it isn’t long before I’m itching to see some summer wildlife again. I miss the insects. The very thought of bees humming and butterflies flickering across the veg patch is enough to make me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
But did you know you can still get a wild bee fix in the depths of winter? Even on Christmas Day? You just need to go in search of winter active bumblebees.
This isn’t as barmy as it sounds, I promise.
Typically, bumblebee nests die out at the end of summer; the new queens have hatched, left the nest, mated, and gone into hibernation.

A rather soggy buff-tailed bumblebee queen

Surviving winter
But one species of bee has been trying something different. Since the late 1990s, people who study insects have been spotting buff-tailed bumblebees flying and feeding in the middle of winter. It appears that if they have a reliable source of food, a safe place to nest and a mild winter, some buff-tailed queens can set up a winter nest instead of hibernating. Although severe and prolonged cold weather would doubtless kill them, these tough bees can fly at temperatures of nearly zero degrees centigrade, so they can survive short cold snaps.
One problem they do face is a lack of wild native flowers. But as luck would have it, we’ve been unintentionally solving this problem for them. Planted in our gardens, parks and around supermarkets, and bearing a mass of yellow pollen-rich flowers throughout winter, is a veritable bumblebee-buffet called Mahonia. It’s a common, non-native, rather prickly, winter-flowering shrub.
Now, if you were to trundle ‘up north’, you’re still unlikely to bump into a winter-active bumblebee. But in the climate-changed south, especially here in Dorset where we’re experiencing very mild winters, with fewer and fewer days of snow and frost, you stand a very good chance of seeing one.
So, the next time you encounter some bright yellow flowers, take a closer look.
You might find a black, white and yellow-striped reminder of summer softly humming to itself. Even on Christmas Day.

Do submit any sightings to the Bees, Wasps, and Ants Recording Society and there’s a fascinating downloadable BWARS information sheet on winter-active bumblebees.

What to look for and where to see buff-tailed bumblebees in winter:
Try to spot the large queens in October, November, and December
Look for smaller worker (female) bumblebees from November onwards
Fairly small drone (male) bumblebees can be seen from January (did you know that male bumblebees don’t sting?)
Look closely at winter flowering plants such as Mahonia, various winter-flowering heathers and winter honeysuckles where bees might be foraging for pollen and nectar
Look in town gardens, parks, car parks, around supermarkets, garden centres and various amenity shrubberies.
For the best chances of seeing one choose a bright, sunny but mild day.

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