Wednesday 22 January 2020

Country Matters: Humble bumble touches our hearts

BUMBLER: Soft spot for bees
BUMBLER: Soft spot for bees

Joe Kennedy

Some sights of summer: a grasshopper seeking water; several honey bees visiting lavender.

A beekeeper whose hive inhabitants disappeared in a swarm (with queen) now has to buy a new lady and begin again. (I know nothing of bees except it is a serious business when I read of rustlers removing entire apiaries under cover of darkness in Australia and New Zealand.)

My most frequently observed bee has been the humble bumble (Bombus hortorum), that regal lady of old gardens which dives into foxglove bells or burrows beneath the silken fold of rose petals. As well as mankind's depredations, she must deal with heat as climate change squeezes her range across northern Europe. She is stubborn, clinging to old territories and compressed in a parched existence. Unlike butterflies and other insects, she is not moving with the shifting sands. Researchers are puzzled. Bumbles evolved under a cool climate and are relatively intolerant of high temperatures - 45°C will kill them and of course will dry up vital food sources.

Earlier, you may have seen a bumble queen in a relentless search for a nest site to begin a new colony. Some people will bury old teapots (spout protruding) to attract them. The bees will look for nesting places in the deserted homes of mice where there is old fluff, paper, dead grass. They will seek old boots or the pockets of half-forgotten coats hanging in sheds. The searching queen is inquisitive for places near fences, rocks and logs.

When a brood of workers emerges she will feed them until it is time for them to set out and get food for her! Bumbles do not store food and only mated queens survive the winter months. They live reclusive lives and are difficult to monitor.

The bumble is a rare creature that struggles in the face of adversity. Disease, pesticides, habitat damage and food scarcity have seen about 20 species disappear with the same number remaining. Many have moved westwards away from the urban density of the east coast.

Much of the decline in numbers may be traced to the virtual disappearance of red clover from meadows from the grass harvest switch to silage about 50 years ago. The best way to encourage them is to provide food - early flowering plants such as dead-nettle and archangel, then lupins, salvias, delphinium, honeysuckle, lavender, thyme, borage and bush fruits. (Not forgetting the clovers!)

Bees generally appear to have had a history of problems - and some cracked problem solvers, even Charles Darwin and TE Huxley. Two hundred years ago Darwin blamed mice for falling bee numbers and said if bees were lost, so would red clover - and, ergo, the cattle trade would be finished!

Huxley, not to be outdone, advocated fewer marriages to help the bees. Unmarried maidens, he said, were fond of cats, the cats hunted mice so more spinsters were needed to save the bees!

I can't recall where I read this wisdom of great philosophical minds but it was many years ago.

Meanwhile, the humble bumble still trundles about, touching a soft spot in our hearts and looking for that elusive red clover.

Sunday Independent

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