There are an exceptional number of buff-tailed bumblebees in the park this year; a walk around the hedges of Sleeper Field on a sunny morning revealed dozens working in the blackberry blossoms and the hogweed. There is obviously at least one large and thriving nest somewhere in the southern part of the park.
It seems that in the last decade or so, in the south of England, a small but increasing number of newly mated buff-tailed queens have not hibernated but have established nests in the autumn: a response to the rising mean temperatures of our winters. These nests rely on winter-flowering plants for nectar and pollen and their workers will be found foraging in the allotments and the gardens of Southwick village. Mahonia, winter-flowering varieties of honeysuckle, clematis and jasmine are their major food resources.
From successful winter nests, a second generation of queens and males emerge in February and March to mate; the mated queens then establish their own nests and begin foraging further afield. Not only does the local population increase but two generations of queens have avoided the many perils of hibernation.
Buff-tailed bumblebees collecting nectar on hogweed.
The fall in honey bee numbers, particularly frightening in the park this year, means that there is less competition among pollinators for resources and more of these new buff-tailed bumblebee nests will survive.
For reasons we don’t quite understand, the park’s flowering plants seem to be doing exceptionally well this year, producing large amounts of blossom. While there appears to be many fewer invertebrates, the nectar feeders among them will do well and their numbers may begin to recover. The buff-tailed bumblebee is proving itself adaptable, able to exploit the changing climate, the loss of competitors and the opportunities offered by human habitation.
Climate change and man-made ecological changes have upset the balance of our pollinator species and are now threatening the world’s food resources. If overwintering bumblebees can help us to replace some of our lost honey bees, then we should encourage them into our gardens with winter-flowering plants.
Winter flowering species