Unexpected queen bumblebee discovery could help us save multiple colonies

20 Mar 2019

Image: © Julia Hermann/Stock.adobe.com

Queen bumblebees are the lifeblood of every colony, and now scientists have discovered they do something totally unexpected beneath our feet.

It has long been assumed that after hibernating in the ground for winter, queen bumblebees quickly emerge from their hiding spot in spring to begin feeding and establishing a new colony. However, researchers at Queen Mary University of London have found that the insects like to have quite a long rest before setting off.

Publishing their findings to Scientific Reports, the researchers documented that queen bumblebees spent quite a lot of their time hiding and resting among dead leaves and grass, potentially putting them in harm’s way of unaware humans and animals.

To determine this, they put small antennas on the backs of queens that had just emerged from artificially induced hibernation, with radar tracking the bees as they woke up and left the area. The data showed that the queens were spending between 10 and 20 minutes resting on the ground, only taking short flights of between 10 and 20 seconds in random directions.

Rather than this being a direct result of the antennas on their back, the researchers said the same behaviour was observed in wild queen bumblebees.

“Our study suggests that a few weeks of this type of behaviour would carry queen bees several kilometres away from their hibernation site and might explain how queens disperse from the nest in which they were born to the place they choose to found a new colony,” said Dr Joe Woodgate, co-lead author of the study.

His colleague and co-lead of the study, Dr James Makinson, said the discovery could help us improve the bees’ chances of successfully founding new colonies, and aid their survival at a time when they are most under threat.

“Our findings suggest that creating pollinator-friendly corridors between conserved landscape patches would be helpful,” Makinson said. “It would also be beneficial to plant pollinator-friendly flowers and trees all year round, giving bumblebee queens ample access to food during their early spring emergence.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic