There is currently a lot of concern about both wild and domestic honeybee populations. In this country, as in other parts of the world, they are being hit by a combination of factors. These include the loss of wildflowers, the effects of pesticides and, most significantly, a virus disease carried by a parasitic mite. As they are a vital part of our food chain, pollinating many of our fruits and vegetables, the concern is well justified.
Good news then that over the last few years a new species of bumblebee has made its way to Britain and seems to be thriving here. It first appeared here in 2001 and is now found in most parts of England and Wales. It seems to be at home in suburban gardens so might well be in yours. Locally its presence has been highlighted following a string of enquiries to the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. It seems that the tree bumblebee, as its name implies, likes to nest higher up than most other species. It looks for dry cavities in which to nest, and has found nest boxes to be ideal, hence the calls to the Trust from people who have seen bees where they expected blue tits.
These bees are easy to identify. They are thickset, furry, about 10 - 16mm long, and have a distinctive colour pattern: bright orange behind their head, then a broad black body with a white tail. No other bees have this pattern.
Ecological Records Coordinator Craig Slawson, who is responsible for maintaining a database of all wildlife recorded in Staffordshire, said: "The tree bumblebee reached Staffordshire in 2009, and we've had reports of it all over the county now, from Newcastle in the north down to Wombourne in the south, Burton and Uttoxeter in the west and Stafford and Stone in mid-Staffordshire. If you discover a tree bumblebee nest in your nest box, don't worry as it shouldn't pose any problems. The bees are quite docile and are unlikely to sting unless provoked or accidentally trapped. The best thing to do is leave them alone and enjoy them as they pollinate your garden flowers!"
More good news about this bee is that, unlike some other newly arrived species such as the harlequin ladybird, it does not seem to be having any harmful effects on other bees or other parts of the ecosystem. It is a very effective pollinator and is therefore just what we need to help to compensate for the decline in other species.
The Trust is asking anyone who has a tree bumblebee nest to report it, preferably accompanied by a photo, to email@example.com in order to help map the distribution of the species. For more information on tree bumblebees, also see www.tinyurl.com/ck4f4o7 .