Resource: How to provide bumblebee nest sites
Bumblebees don’t just need flowers to feed on. As wild bees, they also need to find somewhere to nest!
In spring, bumblebee queens emerge from hibernation and start searching for a dry, sheltered spot where they can raise their offspring. Sadly, good nesting sites are now in short supply due to large-scale changes to our landscape.
Your outdoor space can provide struggling queens with the homes they need, even if you live in a city.
Watch our animation to discover three simple ways you can create potential nest sites, or find out more below.
Click on one of the links below to find out more:
- Bumblebees nests: the basics
- How to provide bumblebee nest sites
- Planting flowers to support bumblebee nests
- What to do if you find a bumblebee nest
- Bee nest boxes
- More ways to help
Bumblebees nests: the basics
Where do bumblebees nest?
Bumblebees are wild bees, which means they need to find their own places to nest, often in our gardens or local greenspaces like parks. (Unlike honeybees, they don’t live in wooden hives managed by beekeepers.)
Different bumblebee species like to nest in different places, including long, tangled grass, bird boxes, and underground in abandoned mouse and vole holes.
Why is it important to provide nesting spots for bumblebees?
In the last century, UK bumblebee populations have crashed. Large-scale changes to our landscape mean that good nesting spots are now in much shorter supply. Millions of the flowers which bumblebees feed on have vanished too, leaving them hungry as well as homeless.
Bumblebees are important pollinators of wildflowers, and many of the fruit and vegetable crops we eat. This makes their decline a very serious problem for both the environment and our food security.
If a bumblebee nest thrives, it will eventually produce new bumblebee queens, which go on to start their own colonies the following year. By creating more nesting opportunities, you can provide vital homes for this year’s bumblebees – and also help future generations of bumblebees go on and on!
How long do bumblebee nests last?
Bumblebee queens start setting up their nests from early spring. Nests then last a few months over spring and summer, before dying off naturally by autumn. Only new queens survive by leaving the nest and finding somewhere else to hibernate over winter.
What does a bumblebee nest look like?
When you picture a bumblebee nest, you might think of a honeycomb design with lots of little hexagonal cells packed closely together. But that’s a honeybee hive!
Bumblebee nests look very different and much untidier. They contain a messy, lumpy group of round wax cells and pollen lumps. Inside the nest is a queen, who is responsible for laying eggs, and her female workers who help gather pollen and nectar from flowers.
Visit our ‘Look inside a bumblebee nest’ resource to discover lots more about this amazing secret world and the lifecycle of a nest.
How to provide bumblebee nest sites
If you want to encourage bumblebee queens to nest on your patch, the first thing to do is provide lots of spring flowers which are rich in pollen and nectar.
Queens will look to set up home close to plenty of food, so they only need to make short trips away from the nest to visit flowers. (If they don’t keep their first batches of eggs and larvae warm using their body heat, their offspring might die.)
Some spring flowers which bumblebee queens love include:
- pussy willow (also called goat willow)
- flowering currant
For more bumblebee-friendly spring flowers, download our FREE ‘Community Planting Guide’ or check out our interactive Bee kind tool.
3 simple ways you can give bumblebees a home
You can make your outdoor space more attractive to nest-hunting queens just by making some small changes. It can be as easy as sitting back and letting nature do its thing!
Different bumblebee species like to nest in different places, so it’s a great idea to offer a variety of nesting spots if you can. But even one potential home will make a big difference, as every bumblebee nest is precious.
1 Let a patch of grass grow long and tangled
Some bumblebee species like to nest on the ground, for example the Common carder bumblebee. They make their homes hidden inside thick grass, and use pieces of moss and grass for nesting material.
Try letting a patch of grass grow for several months, and leave it undisturbed between March and October (bumblebee nesting season). If you decide to cut the grass at any point outside this period, it’s still important to check carefully that there aren’t any bumblebees nesting inside.
It’s also a great idea to leave some shorter grass for solitary bee species which burrow into the ground to make their nests.
2 Put up a bird box with some nesting material inside
Some bumblebee species prefer to nest up high, especially the Tree bumblebee. As well as using natural holes in trees, Tree bumblebees will make themselves at home in bird boxes.
Bumblebees can’t carry any nesting material into the box themselves, so help create a cosy, warm home by lining the box with natural material such as straw, leaves, moss, wool, or pet hair. Make sure any nesting material you use is dry so the wooden box doesn’t get damp inside and start to rot! Alternatively, if birds have already used the box, leave their old nesting material inside for the bumblebees to reuse.
It’s a good idea to place the box somewhere north-facing, as bumblebees don’t like their nests to be in direct sunlight.
Tree bumblebees also nest in roof eaves, but don’t cause any damage to buildings. Find out more about their nesting habits on our Tree bumblebee page.
3 Don’t be too tidy
Many of the most common UK bumblebee species nest underground in abandoned mouse and vole holes. This includes the White-tailed bumblebee (the star of our animation), the Buff-tailed bumblebee, and the Garden bumblebee.
Queens will search for abandoned burrows in wilder, undisturbed corners of your outdoor space. By being less tidy, you can create the right conditions for bumblebees and other wildlife to find a home!
Try leaving a shady, sheltered corner alone. Or if you have a hedge, let plants grow wild along the base (particularly the north-facing side, as bumblebees don’t like their nests to be in direct sunlight).
Being less tidy is also a great way to help new bumblebee queens when it comes to finding a hibernation spot for winter.
Planting flowers to support bumblebee nests
Bumblebee nests run entirely on flower power! The queen and her offspring need a constant supply of pollen and nectar throughout the nest’s lifecycle from early spring until autumn (generally March to October). If they are unable to find enough food at any point, the nest might die off before it can produce new queens or males.
The best thing you can do to help bumblebee nests near you is grow bumblebee-friendly plants which flower across the different seasons!
Download our FREE ‘Community Planting Guide’ for lots of great planting ideas listed by flowering time, or check out our interactive Bee kind tool.
What to do if you find a bumblebee nest
If you discover a nest on your patch, you’re very lucky! They can be difficult to find and not many people ever see one.
It’s best to leave the nest alone and enjoy watching the busy workers coming and going from a respectful distance. Bumblebees are generally only interested in finding flowers, and nests only last a few months before dying off naturally (usually by autumn).
You can find further help and advice on these pages:
Bee nest boxes
Can I try making my own bumblebee nest site?
Making your own DIY bumblebee nest site is a fun, family-friendly activity. You will need a large terracotta flower pot and a few other cheap materials you can easily buy, or may already have at home.
For step-by-step instructions, download our FREE ‘Make space for bumblebee nests’ guide here.
Should I buy a bumblebee ‘nest box’?
Bumblebee ‘nest boxes’ are pre-made houses which you can install in your outdoor space to provide a potential nesting site. Bumblebee queens are picky, though, and only a very small percentage of these boxes are ever used.
You may have more success – and save money! – by letting parts of your outdoor space grow a bit wilder, or putting up a bird box. You could also try installing a hedgehog house, which are sometimes used by bumblebees in summer, and hedgehogs in winter (the bumblebee colony dies off naturally by autumn).
If you do decide to try a bumblebee ‘nest box’, make sure to put some natural, dry nesting material inside, such as straw, leaves, moss, wool, or pet hair. You should also put it out of direct sunlight, as bumblebees don’t like their nests to be too warm.
For more ways to increase your chance of success with a nest box, read volunteer Kevin Henry’s blog about creating artificial bumblebee nest sites in his garden.
Although it is possible to buy bumblebee nest boxes with a ready-made bumblebee colony inside, we do not recommend this. Commercial bumblebee nests, marketed at gardeners and nature lovers, pose a threat to our natural bumblebee populations through competition for food and potential transference of disease and pests.
Do bumblebees live in ‘bee hotels’ with lots of hollow tubes or holes?
No, they don’t! ‘Bee hotels’ are designed for certain species of solitary bee, such as the Leafcutter bee (pictured) and the Red mason bee.
Like bumblebees, solitary bees are wild and need to find their own places to nest. However, they are much smaller than bumblebees and different species vary a lot in their colours, shapes and markings.
Solitary bees don’t have social colonies with workers. Instead, each female tends to her own young by herself. Find out more in our brief guide to solitary bee nest boxes.
More ways to help
Help us give bumblebees a brighter future
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is working hard to create habitat for bumblebees around the UK, including nesting sites. We can do even more for these threatened pollinators with your support.
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