Last Sunday, Tayport Community Garden was abuzz with Kaska’s PLANT science workshop on bumblebees. Twelve nature lovers of all ages gathered under the trees to learn more about those lovable flying furballs, their importance as pollinators, reasons for their recent decline, and how we can help them through creating bee-friendly spaces in our gardens. We also had a go at the Blooms for Bees citizen science survey and finished off by making a personal bumblebee pledge.
Below are our session highlights and a list of useful bumblebee resources.
After a brief introduction we explored the Community Garden for bee-friendly habitats. We found lots of undisturbed spots near or in the ground, perfect for bumblebee nesting: inside and under the bug hotels, compost bins, under the sheds and in long grass tussocks along the fence and in the willow tunnel meadow. No nests spotted so far but there were plenty of bumbles buzzing about so they must be well hidden somewhere!
There were also lots of open flowers creating a perfect bee buffet of pollen and nectar: peas, beans and potatoes in the veggie beds, feverfew, thyme and marigolds in the herb-bed, comfrey at the compost crescent and various ornamental perennials in the newly planted sensory border. We normally let the lawn grow a little between the cuts so it also was full of white clover flowers along with plenty of feeding bees! And not a trace of pansy, busy lizzy, pelargonium, polyanthus, or begonia anywhere – all famous for their pleasing displays of colour but infamous for leaving bees and other pollinators hungry. The only thing missing was a proper wildflower meadow, the classic bumblebee habitat which has pretty much disappeared from the British landscape. In our defense, we’ve already set up a gorgeous perennial wildflower border at the bottom of Scotscraig Drive and helped plant meadows at Tayport Green with Fife’s buzzing project last year. We are now working towards more wildflowers at the Garden too.
Are you starting to wonder how bee-friendly your own garden flowers are? Bee Kind is a great interactive online tool which allows you to quickly check this, even if your plant knowledge is a bit shaky. It also gives tailored recommendations on how to make your garden even more bumblebee-perfect.
Next, we had a go at learning to identify 7 of the most common and widespread UK bumblebee species (there are 25 overall, 19 of them are found in Scotland). It was tougher than expected but we do hope that practice will help! If you are serious about learning to identify your bees we included some tips in the resource list at the end of the post.
Kaska told us that this year we’ve seen 6 of the common species the Garden: carders, red tails, buff tails, white tails, early and garden bumblebees. So far we’ve seen most bumblebees on chives, thyme, raspberry, comfrey, white clover, phacelia, brambles, and broad beans. Some seem to be fairly fussy about which flowers they feed on – for example, carders love comfrey and early bumblebees couldn’t get enough of raspberry flowers a couple of weeks ago.
Watching bees in our gardens is great fun in itself. But, our observations can make a real difference to the knowledge about bees and how to help them. There are a number of citizen science projects in the UK aimed at involving any gardener or nature lover in contributing to important bee research (see resources below). During our Sunday session we had a go at Blooms for Bees, which looks at which bumbleebees visit gardens and allotments and at identifying their favourite garden flowers.
We fired up the Blooms for Bees app on the Garden iPad and one of our smartphones and set about recording our observations. We found some clover and thyme in flower, counted the number of ‘floral units’ we were watching and started the clock on our 5 minute observation. Every time we saw a new bee bumble into our observation area, we tried to identify it and input this information into the app. As beeginners we were not quite confident with our identification but thankfully there was an option to record a bee as ‘species unknown’. The inbuilt bee guide was also of help. Even better – we were able to take and submit photos of our finds so that the bee experts can do the identifying for us (see below for tips on bumblebee photography)! We will get confirmation whether we got things right once they get around to looking at our submission.
We will be bee spotting all summer and you can see what we found on the interactive project map here.
To finish, we all thought of something we will do this year to help bumblebees and made our bumblebee pledges. Do you have one too?
Bumblebee watcher’s resources
If you find anything fun or useful which is missing from the list please let us know!
Here are a couple of examples (plenty more out there!):
- The homeless bumblebee and me – personalised bumblebee book for kids from FOE. You can fully preview it online for free or order a printed version (proceeds go to the charity).
- Sting in the tail by Dave Goulson, UK’s foremost bumblebee champion – a highly recommended introduction to bumblebees in the UK and a wonderful personal story about author’s bumblebee research, and involvement in projects helping them. It’s worth keeping an eye on his blog for all things bumblebee.
- Field guide to the bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk – for those who would like to go all the way with their bee id skills.
- BBCT recommended list – with information on how to make a donation to BBCT when buying the books, at no additional cost.
Organisations involved in helping bumblebees
(You can join and receive a great welcome pack or just explore their websites which have lots of useful information, including on bees in gardens. Worth subscribing to the free email newsletters too:)
- British Bumblebee Conservation Tust (BBCT)
- Buglife – Scotland
- Friends of the Earth’s Great British Bee Count (they are also campaigning against neonicotinoids)
- Plantlife (meadows and wildflowers)
Bumblebee friendly gardening – general
- Gardening for Bumblebees! from British Bumblebee Conservation Trust
- Gardening for Bumblebees from Blooms for Bees
- 10 easy ways to help bees in your garden from Great British Bee Count
- How to create a wildflower meadow? from Great British Bee Count
- What to plant in tiny spaces to help bees and butterflies thrive in the The Guardian
- Wildlife friendly hanging basket Gardener’s World
Bumblebee friendly flower lists
- OUR FAVOURITE: Bee Kind interactive garden design tool from British Bumblebee Conservation Trust
- Planting for Pollinators online tool (BeeWatch project) – a bit clunky but lots of up to date information and research links on flower preferences and year-round planting recommendations for your garden.
- Dave Goulson’s personal bumblebee favourites
- Royal Horticultural Society’s Perfect for Pollinators range (also look out for bee stickers at nurseries)
- Pollinator-friendly native meadow seed mixes – Scotia Seeds, plug plants – Binny Plants
- Scottish Beekeepers Association plant advice for honey bee friendly Scottish garden (much of it applicable to bumblebees) – download here (PDF).
Learning bee identification
- BeeWatch id tool – an online tool for practicing your bee id from photos with instant feedback and tips.
- BBCT identification guide for 8 common species (dowloadable PDF) – more species included on the website here.
- Blooms for Bees online id guide (all UK species) – if you submit your photos with the survey through the app, the expert will give you feedback on your bee identification.
Videos introducing common species:
Mobile phone apps:
- Bumblebees of Britain and Northern Ireland (iphone only, paid, very comprehensive)
- Blooms for Bees (iphone and android, free, suitable for beginners) – search for Blooms for Bees in your app store
Bumblebee (and other pollinator) citizen science projects for gardens
- BBCT list of projects – including BeeWatch, BeeWalk (online only) and our favourite Blooms for Bees (mobile app).
- Great British Bee Count (Friends of the Earth) – runs from 1 to 30 June each year. Based on a mobile app which includes an id guide. Covers bumblebees as well as some solitary bees. Disadvantage is that, unlike the other projects, after submitting you do not have access to your own records.
- Polli:nation – looks at pollinator habitats in green spaces/gardens and how they affect pollinator abundance. Great resources for schools. Paper and website based.
These pages should help you take a perfect bumblebee snap for your own collection and to allow scientists to confirm your sightings from the photos you submit:
- How to take fantastic pictures of bees on your smartphone? from Great British Bee Count
- Using photographs from BBCT (also see this downloadable PDF photo guide from BeeWatch)
Bumblebees for kids
- Bumble Kids – kid zone on the British Bumblebee Trust website with sets of age-appropriate bumblebee information, worksheets, crafts and activities.
- Bee Scene – lots of activities for families and schools exploring bumblebees’ habitat in wild spaces such as meadows. Part of Wild about Plants website developed by Plantlife. Kids can submit your observations online, and create a bumblebee story or a broadcast to be featured on Pantlife website.
- Polli:nation – resources for schools relating to the Polli:nation citizen science project and covering all pollinators, including bumblebees. Can filter them by age.
Pollination (in case you are still not sure what it is all about;)
- What is pollination? – Video suitable for kids
- Buzz pollination – Video explaining the secret of this bumblebee specialty