The Plight of the Bumblebee


“I moved closer and not only heard it, saw it – the biggest, fattest, furriest bumblebee ever.  I could barely believe my eyes”.

We recently received this delightful story, by Bumblebee Conservation Trust member, Judith Pearson, and her encounter with a queen bumblebee in winter! We hope you enjoy reading and sharing with friends and family.

I have to tell you I am not a morning person, never have been, never will be.  So when there was a knock on my door at 8.30 am one morning, I was surprised.  Not expecting a delivery or workmen.  Friends know better and god-squadders surely won’t risk it?

I squinted at the opaque glass panel in the heavy wooden door.  I could see a very familiar outline so I opened up and there, wrapped snugly in a brown puffa coat, thick woolly scarf, thermal gloves and cream bobble hat, stood my friend Anna.  Even at 8.30 am the temperature was still well below freezing but what else can you expect in February?

“I was passing, I thought I’d pop by for a catch up.  Have you got time?”  I think I may have rolled my eyes.

We had been planning an advance strategy to deal with the summer invasion of the leaf-mining moth on the gigantic horse chestnut tree at the bottom of her garden.  Not just one moth, you understand, battalions.  Of course, I hadn’t got very far with the research, so I put on the kettle and made us coffee.

She was very anxious. She said that the tree surgeon, due imminently, might condemn it because it might have canker too.  I thought canker was something dogs got, but I didn’t say.  I said it would be probably protected, being so big and so old, and got out the chocolate digestives.

Coffee and biscuits finished, it was time for us both to make tracks – me, shopping; her – work.

We both wrapped up well, hoping to escape the worst of the cold.  I opened the front door and we stepped into the covered walkway outside my top floor flat.  The architecture here is a bit weird, top half – glass; bottom half – brick.  Greenhouse in the summer, fridge in the winter but protection from the wind, rain and snow.  I locked the door.  Anna stopped in her tracks.

“What’s that noise?” she said.

“What noise?”

“That noise…  It sounds like a bee.”

“A bee?  It’s winter?  It must be -2o out there and probably not much more in here.”

“No.  It’s definitely a bee… There it is again.”

I looked at her quizzically, beginning to doubt her sanity.

“A bee” I said patronisingly, “wouldn’t last a minute and anyway I can’t hear any…”

I tilted my head towards the window and listened, I did vaguely think I heard something but no, nothing.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a leaf on the acid-pink geranium tremble.  Yes, I know, like the bee, not possible to be still alive in winter – but I have green fingers, I talk to them and it is protected in here.

I moved closer and not only heard it, saw it – the biggest, fattest, furriest bumblebee ever.  I could barely believe my eyes.

“Told you,” quipped Anna triumphantly.

“Wow! Have you ever seen such a huge bumblebee?  It must be 10 times the size of a normal one.”

“Don’t exaggerate, Sophia. It is big, probably three times bigger than a normal one, I’d say.”

We watched it, for a minute, nuzzling the pink flowers hunting for pollen, but cultivated geraniums don’t produce much pollen, even in summer.

“We should let it out,” said Anna.

“Let it out?  Out there?”  I pointed to the sky. “It’ll freeze to death.”

“It’ll starve to death in here” she retorted.

So I opened a louvered window wide and the bumblebee flew off into the frosty air.

“It must have hibernated in here at the end of the summer” Anna informed me.

“Don’t be daft.  They live in hives.  Sleep in hives.  Hibernate in hives.  I have a friend who keeps bees.  Do you see a hive in here?”

“No, but how did it get in then?” she asked.

I looked up.

“Aha.  There, I think.”  I pointed to a slightly open window.  “It must have been attracted by the pink flowers on that geranium.  Pity it wasn’t bee friendly and oozing pollen.”

And, that, as they say, was that.

Anna went off to work and I went off shopping.

It turned out to be a marathon shop and it was almost dark when I arrived home.  As I approached the entrance to my flat I saw something move on one of the poetry paving stones.  It’s an arty-farty place where I live.  All over the estate random pavement slabs are engraved with extracts of poems.

I looked closer and gasped.  There, back again, was the biggest, fattest, furriest bumblebee.  It was moving at a very slow, unsteady crawl.  I watched for a minute then knew what I had to do.  Someone might come by and step on it.  It was getting dark.  The path was not well lit. They might not see it.  How awful would it be to come out in the morning and find it squashed in a poetry stanza?

I rummaged in my handbag for my purse, unearthed it and took out a debit card. I emptied the garlic bulbs from a brown paper bag into the bottom of the shopper. I would have picked the bee up but was afraid I might get stung, even worse the bee might die because I heard, unlike wasps, their sting is barbed and they tear away half their body trying to get away. So drastic situations need drastic action.

I knelt on the pavement, debit card in one hand, paper bag in the other.  I moved the card gently under the bumblebee.  I knew it wasn’t going anywhere fast.  It looked dazed. Hypothermia had probably set it.  It tottered on to the card and collapsed.  I lodged the paper bag under the card, just in case the bumblebee fell off and stood up.  I picked up my bags with my free hand and staggered up the stairs.

When I arrived outside my flat I dumped the shopping bags on the doormat, walked over to the windowsill and put down the card and the bumblebee.  I closed the open windows and looked for a cosy spot for my bumblebee.  I thought it might be comfortable on the geranium, so I tilted the card and my bumblebee landed on the compost.  It would be safe there until morning, I thought. No chance of there being any of those toxic neonicotinoids on my organic geraniums.  I’m not in favour of bee genocide so corporates can make huge profits.

I picked up my bags, opened the front door and went inside. It’s a nice feeling when you think you’ve been virtuous.

After supper and a bit of TV my thoughts returned to my bumblebee.  Better just go check it’s OK.  I looked at the geranium – no bumblebee.  Automatically I looked down at the floor.  There it was.  I felt nervous as I bent down to check it out.  It was still alive so I pulled a plastic instruction label from another plant pot, scooped it up and put it back on the geranium.

I went back indoors, but not for long.  I was worried about my giant bumblebee.  I was back outside within 20 minutes.  Again it was missing.  Not on the floor this time.  Perhaps it had rested, regained its strength and flown up into the rafters for more warmth? Heat rises, doesn’t it? And perhaps I was kidding myself.  Then I spotted it, clinging to the mortar between the bricks.  It seemed content and settled so I went back indoors.  Perhaps the mortar felt like a hot water bottle, I reassured myself.

Just before I went to bed I went to check again.  It wasn’t on the mortar; it was back on the floor.  I was beginning to get upset.  It must be freezing or may be it was starving?  What if it dies?  What could I do?

Suddenly it came to me – google it!

I rushed back indoors, picked up the laptop and switched it on.  It took forever to load.  I was getting impatient.  At last the screen lit up and my nifty fingers typed in “bumblebee” and pressed enter.  Pages and pages and pages flooded across the screen. I knew I’d find the answer and there, at the top of the list, The Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

I quickly flipped through the relevant lines.  It said there were more reports of over-wintering bumblebees and some people had been in touch with the Trust:  to report finding bumblebees lying on the ground, appearing tired and unwell.

Just like mine!

It went on: These are most likely to be new bumblebee queens that have recently left the nest to set up their own nests. Because of the scarcity of flowers in winter, these bumblebees sometimes use a lot of energy in flying, but don’t have any food to replace that lost energy.

I knew it.

Then I found the magic words:  These bees can be helped though, and the easiest way to do so is to make a sugar solution. Put this in a small saucer or plastic drinks lid, and place it near the bee’s head. She should then lap this up, and she’ll use the energy to heat her body up and fly off.

Note – Before deciding whether or not a bumblebee is in need of rescue – here are three questions you should ask first.

I rushed to the kitchen and mixed a solution of sugar and lukewarm water and placed it on small plastic flip top and took it outside.  My queen bumblebee was on the floor again.  I scooped her up and put her back on the geranium compost.  I placed the sugar solution alongside her head, as per instructions, and went back indoors.

Ten minutes later I was outside again.  She hadn’t touched the sugary mix.  More drastic action needed.  I went back indoors and picked up the laptop.  I read it again. Damn, I’d misread read it, only used a very small amount of sugar, it should have been 50:50.  I read on, it also said if the weather was particularly bad, the bumblebee could come indoors, overnight.

I rushed to the kitchen and mixed up a heady, sugary solution.  It did say organic white sugar was best but I only had bog standard so I made it 60:40.  I found a flat plastic container that once housed soft toothpicks – rubbery ones, so much better than dental floss.  The ridge around it was so tiny my bumblebee would easily be able to get it.

I went into the bedroom and rifled through the wardrobe for a shoebox.  It wasn’t a problem, I could supply a shoe shop with boxes.  I took it to the kitchen, stabbed holes in the top, shredded some cotton wool and laid a couple of tissues over the top, nothing but the best for my Queenie.  I re-arranged the bedding to make room for the feeder.  Once I was happy with the layout I went outside, armed with debit card, and scooped Queenie up and brought her indoors.  I laid her gently down alongside the solution and replaced the lid.  Best to leave her in the kitchen, it might be too hot anywhere else – didn’t want Queenie overheating during the night.

I turned out the light and went off to bed.  I hoped there were enough air holes in the lid, didn’t want her to suffocate after her ordeal.  There was a lot of tossing and turning during the night but I resisted several urges to get up and check her.

Unlike me, I woke up early, got up and went straight to the kitchen.  I knelt beside the cardboard box, anxious that she might have got her energy back and be buzzing around angrily trying to get out; but there was silence.  I lifted the lid carefully.  She was awake, walking in small circles.  She looked like she was getting ready to go.  I took the box outside to the balcony, lifted the lid and waited.  She was trying really hard to rev up for take off but I could tell she wasn’t firing on all cylinders.  Perhaps she needed some breakfast?

We went back indoors.  I flicked on the kettle.  I took a level spoonful of sugar from the sugar basin and put it the bottom of an egg cup.  I poured an equal amount of water onto the sugar and mixed it vigorously with a discarded soft pick.  It looked like a starter portion, so I doubled it and made it a main course. Of course, boiling water was too hot.  Queenie would have to wait.  She was still desperately trying to rev up, getting a little impatient.

At last, breakfast was ready.  I poured into the container and laid it alongside her and watched, hardly daring to breathe.  She slurped it up and a few minutes later she was really revving.  I knew she was ready.

I took the box outside, put it on the floor and stood back.  I could hear loud buzzing. There was a pea-sized pulsating reddish sac on her under carriage.  It looked like a throbbing red heart, the type you might see in a cartoon film.  I was trembling.  It was awesome just watching.  Her wings started to flap then, unbelievably, she took off.  Whoosh, a vertical lift off like a Harrier Jump Jet.  She zoomed ten feet into the now clear, icy blue sky.  My spirits soared with her as I watched her fly skywards towards the leafless trees.  I was thrilled.  I wanted to cry.

I like to think she does a fly-past every year, like the Red Arrows at Trooping the Colour, only a bit more dignified – slightly dipping her antennae as she passes, just to say thank you.  However, the Bumblebee Trust website says they don’t last long – a year at most.  I like to think they are wrong.

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