Busy bum­ble­bees

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Welcome - CHRIS PACK­HAM’S PACK

For­ag­ing “fly­ing bar­rels” work in­cred­i­bly hard

WITH­OUT NEC­TAR TOP-UPS, A FLY­ING BUM­BLE­BEE WOULD CONK OUT IN JUST 40 MIN­UTES.”

Shake­speare and Dar­win called them “hum­ble­bees”. What­ever the ori­gins of this quaint name, bum­ble­bees have long un­fairly played sec­ond fid­dle to their honey-pro­duc­ing rel­a­tives. “Furry-bod­ied fly­ing bar­rels” is the af­fec­tion­ate de­scrip­tion favoured by ex­pert Richard Comont in his re­cent book Bum­ble­bees (Blooms­bury). De­bunk­ing the myth that th­ese plump in­sects ought not to be ca­pa­ble of flight, he adds: “They’re not grace­ful… but they’re def­i­nitely air­borne.”

The myth arose be­cause of a physi­cist’s mis­taken as­sump­tion that bum­ble­bees flap their wings only up and down; in fact, their mo­tion is more like that of a he­li­copter. It is true, though, that our most ted­dy­bear-like bees must work in­cred­i­bly hard to get into the air. Their mus­cle-packed tho­rax pow­ers 200 wing­beats a sec­ond, heat­ing up to 30–40°C in the process. Nec­tar, which is at least 30 per cent sugar, pro­vides the fuel (lar­vae in the nest are fed mainly on pollen). For­ag­ing bum­ble­bees visit more flow­ers per minute than hon­ey­bees, and carry heav­ier loads too, so are highly ef­fec­tive pol­li­na­tors. Tomato and soft fruit crops de­pend on them. This May, World Bee Day is an op­por­tune mo­ment to give thanks for our hum­ble, hairy, hard­work­ing friends. GET IN­VOLVED For more de­tails of World Bee Day (20 May), visit www.world­bee­day.org/en

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