The great nectar robbery


LAST week I wrote that spring had not arrived in Lancashire. This week we have had some lovely sunshine but it is close to or below freezing at night, so overall progress has been a bit slow and I am still wearing a vest.

However I have seen some harbingers in the form of white-tailed bumble bees (Bombus lucorum).

I am very far from expert on insects, and there are several types of bumble bees in this country, some of them almost identical to my untutored eye. However I am pretty sure that’s what our bees are. They are making full use of our flowering currant bush. The early flowering plants must be a godsend to the early insects.

We tend to take small creatures for granted, but they are fascinating in their life-cycles and in their interaction with the rest of nature. The bees I am seeing are females which hatched last year, mated and then hibernated. I think at present they are looking for somewhere to nest – one or two are showing an interest in the eaves of the shed, though according to the books they nest in holes in the ground, maybe one vacated by a mouse or a vole, preferably south-facing. We certainly have mice, but I am not sure about voles.

Having found her dream home, the queen lays her first batch of eggs on a bed of pollen and covers them with wax. These will all be workers, which will look after future young. (Workers are non-reproductive females.) Eventually the colony may be 200 strong or more, which is tiny compared with a honey bee colony which can have 50,000 individuals. Males and fully functioning females hatch later in the year. They mate, then the males and the old queens die, while the young queens hibernate.

Here’s a terrific little film about a home-made nest for buff-tailed bumble bees (very similar to the white-tailed ones).

White-tailed bumble bees have only a short proboscis for sucking nectar, which limits them to daisy-type flowers or others with short corollas (the petal formation). However, the resourceful workers have come up with a way round the problem. They use the tough sheath around their probosces to drill a hole through the base of longer corollas straight into the nectar. Nifty, eh? This is called nectar robbing because the bee does not come into contact with the plant’s pollen and so does not help its reproduction. Apparently after the hole has been drilled other insects will come along to see if there is any nectar left. The technique is used by many types of insects as well as some birds.

Here are two short videos of larcenous bees at work (not white-tailed bumbles though). 


2 Replies to “The great nectar robbery”

  1. Very educational; I never knew about that nectar-robbing method. The bee was like a little vampire biting somebody’s neck.

    I have some common, large orange poppies in my garden which flower every May and June, attracting scores of bees. It is a wonderful sight and sound. They disappear inside the flower and you hear them rattling and buzzing around inside it. They love echinops too.

    I wouldn’t fancy lifting the lid of a bee nest in a shed like that man did. He is an unstung hero.

    1. Hi Andy this is Margaret. As you will know, in theory bees are reluctant to sting because they die as a result, but like you I would be a bit wary of getting that close. Great joke! Must find a way of using it. I didn’t know about nectar robbing either till I looked up the bees for the piece, and I was amazed to find that there are loads of YouTube films on it. Love the idea of the bees rattling around in the poppies.

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