Tuesday 16 November 2010

Winter active bumblebees

ResearchBlogging.orgWe had our first frost yesterday, and it was also a frosty morning today. But coming back home this afternoon, with the light already going weaker, I came across a Tree Bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum feeding on a large Mahonia bush. I have posted before on this bumblebee, a recent natural colonist in the U.K. In the last two decades, reports of winter active bumblebees - mostly Bombus terrestris - have steadily been accumulating, especially in the south of Britain. Queen bumblebees are occasionally active in warm winter days, but the reports referred to queens collecting pollen - a sign they are actually nesting, not hibernating - or workers - indicative of active nests. These observations depart of the usual bumblebee life cycle in northern Europe, where winter hibernation of queens is the usual case. Whereas there are many native flowers in bloom during the winter to support a second generation in the Mediterranean, this is not the case in northern Europe. What resources are active winter bumblebees using? Stelzer and coleagues tested the hypothesis that winter bumblebees are making use of non-native flowers in parks and gardens. To do this, they set up B. terrestris colonies and followed them during two winters. In the second winter they introduced a new technique - micro-tagging - which allows automatic recording each time the tag passes nearby the tag reader set at the nest entrance. They attached the small RFID tags to the thorax of 64 individuals, and positioned a micro-balance at the entrance of the nest so that bumblebees also weighed themselves as they went in and out the nest, so that they can estimate the increase of weight of each bumblebee at the return of each foraging trip. Their results showed that bumblebees in their experimental nests were able to forage for nectar successfully during the winter, with nectar returns per hour foraging comparable or higher to yields obtained during spring and summer.
The researchers also carried out transects in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew to ascertain which plants were being visited by Bumblebees during the winter:
Only cultivated plants were in flower and the main plants visited by B. terrestris were Arbutus unedo and Salvia uliginosa in October (38.2% and 42.3% of the total recordings during that month, respectively), Arbutus spp. (A. unedo and A. x andrachnoides) (31.2%) and Mahonia spp. (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ and Mahonia lomariifolia) (43.7%) in November, Mahonia spp. (69.0%) in December, Salix aegyptiaca in January (48.2%) and Lonicera fragrantissima (24.1%) in February.
The high yields obtained by the experimental bumblebees might be explained by the nectar sources being large bushes with large volumes of nectar per flower and the flowers being in large inflorescences, such as the ones in Mahonia (see photo above) and willows. In addition, there is no competition for nectar and pollen in the winter months by other foraging bees. Only a few honeybees were around, and these are not active below 10oC, while the bumblebees can forage at temperatures close to 0oC. Further work is necessary to assess if this generation is actually successful, that is, if males and queens are produced, but these results show how human impacts - gardening possibly coupled with climate change- have unexpected effects on the life cycles of native organisms.

Stelzer RJ, Chittka L, Carlton M, & Ings TC (2010). Winter active bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) achieve high foraging rates in urban Britain. PloS one, 5 (3) PMID: 20221445

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