Is Bombus Really Bombing?

By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener It’s not often I have a wildlife conversation at the supermarket checkout. As I packed my Fairtrade raw hemp handwoven shopping bags and chatted idly about the warm weather, the cashier asked me if I had noticed how big the bumblebees (Bombus sp.) were this year. And indeed I had. And how very many of them there were. Not only had I seen them bumbling about the Wildlife Garden, I had noticed lots of them disappearing into holes the size of 2p pieces in the sandy banks along the A25.

Bumblebee holes

So I was surprised to see a BBC Breakfast piece on the decline of the bumblebee. It reported: there are 25 different species of bumblebee, six of which are common to gardens. Three bumblebee species have become extinct in the UK; a further nine are endangered. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is asking people to photograph bumblebees and email the pictures to them together with a postcode so that they can survey the population nationally. Please do this if you can ” I shall be too, as long as the bees turn up when I’m carrying my camera! Sting In The Tale ” True or False? We are discussing a lot of biting creatures on the Ranger’s Blog at the moment, so by extension, do bumblebees sting? As a four-year-old I picked a very small drowning bumblebee out of my paddling pool and played with the wretched soggy creature. My mother told me to put it down or it would sting me:

“It won’t sting me, Mummy” “Put it down.” “It won’t sting me Mu…AAAARGH!”

I was told that it was only the really huge bumblebees that don’t sting, although this hypothesis is not supported by a traditional little ditty we sang at playgroup that went something along the lines of: I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee, won’t my mother be so proud of me? I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee… Ouch! It stung me! I’m squishing up a baby bumblebee, won’t my mother be so proud of me? I’m squishing up a baby bumblebee… Yuck! All over me! I’m wiping off a baby bumblebee, won’t my mother be so proud of me? I’m wiping off a baby bumblebee… Oh no! My mother’s cross with me! So just what is really true? BOTH queen and worker bumblebees CAN sting, but males cannot: they have genitals but no sting. Whereas a honeybee stings humans once and then dies, a bumblebee can sting repeatedly. This is because a honeybee’s sting is barbed and remains in the skin, dragging out the bee’s entrails. A bumblebee’s sting is not barbed so it can be withdrawn without harming itself. Bumblebees sting reluctantly so you have to really hack one off to get a sting reaction. My poor little paddling pool bumblebee: wet, cold, half drowned, and mauled about by a curious four-year-old. No wonder it went postal.

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