Often confused with Honey Bees, the Bumble Bee is larger, furrier are generally black with varying degrees of yellow/red banding across the end of their tails. There are 20 different species of bumblebees in Ireland. 14 true bumble bees and 6 cuckoo bumble bees.
They are social insects, living in colonies of 50 to 500 workers, depending on the species. Queens hibernate during the winter, emerging in spring to find suitable nest sites like abandoned mouse holes. Some species emerge as early as February and can be seen from early spring until late autumn. Each queen builds a nest of dried grasses and then lays about a dozen eggs that hatch into workers - sterile females.
The workers then gather pollen and nectar to feed later batches of grubs. New queens and males hatch at the end of the season and mate. The males, workers and old queens die and only the new queens hibernate. Bumblebees are not aggressive and will only sting if they feel threatened. They are important pollinators of many plants and fruiting trees.
In the first warm days of spring you will see the large queens flying about the early flowers. These large slow bees are searching for nectar and pollen to turn into food for their newly hatching brood.
The queen will locate a suitable place to build her nest. Most common are the leaf litter in a compost heap, an old mouse hole, under the wooden floor of a garden shed.
The queen begins a nest into which she lays just a few (approx 6) eggs at a time. When the eggs hatch into worker bees they begin work to support the colony and their queen. The Queen continues to lay eggs, but as it takes more and more of her time the pollen and nectar collection is delegated to the workers, the queen spending her whole time in the nest.
Later in the summer the queen lays eggs destined to become next year's queen bees as well as drones or male bees. The drones only purpose being to mate with the young queens to ensure the survival of the species. Unlike honey bees the young bumble queens will continue to live and work in the mother colony for the remainder of the summer and autumn.
Come the first sharp drop in temperature and frosts the old queen, her workers and the drones will die. Only the newly mated queens will survive in hibernation to begin the cycle again the following spring.
Every autumn young mated queens seek out a place to hibernate in safety. Queens hibernate during the winter, emerging in spring to find suitable nest sites.