For most bumblebees species, winter is a time for hibernation. Indeed, queens can be expected to spend about half of their life in hibernation! But for the Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), winter can be just as busy a time as the rest of the year. In the warmer parts of the UK, fully active winter colonies of this species are regularly recorded, even when temperatures are close to freezing and there is snow on the ground. Read on to find out how to help them.
These plucky bees are feeding upon a few winter-flowering plant species such as Mahonia (like the bee in the photo below), Viburnum x bodnantense, and winter honeysuckle. So if you live in England or Wales (especially the south) you may expect to see some bumblebees this winter, and can help them by planting one or more of those plant species for them to visit.
Some people have got in touch with us to tell us that they have found bumblebees lying on the ground, appearing tired and unwell. These are most likely to be new bumblebee queens that have recently left the nest to either set up their own nests, or go into hibernation. Often bumblebees are simply resting, however, because of the scarcity of flowers in winter, these bumblebees sometimes don’t have any food to replace that lost energy. If there are flowering plants available nearby, the best thing to do is to place the bumblebee on or near them.
If you can’t find any flowers, you can mix together a sugar solution of half white sugar and half warm water (brown sugar and honey can be bad for bumblebees) as a one-off energy boost. Put this on a teaspoon or plastic drinks lid, and place it near the bee’s head (see the photo below). It should then lap this up, and will use the energy to heat its body up and fly off. Before deciding whether or not a bumblebee is in need of rescue – here are three questions you should ask first.
Bumblebees cannot be kept indoors for a long time, and the queens will need to be outside so they can hibernate or build a nest. There might even be a nest with eggs or larvae in it waiting for her to come back and feed them. So if you find any bumblebees, it’s fine to give them shelter from very harsh weather overnight, but they will need to be outside again as soon as possible.
If you have spotted any bumblebees active this winter, you can report them to a study that is being done on winter foraging activity. You can report sightings of winter-active bumblebees with by filling in this BWARS survey.