August should be a month in which we can enjoy the best weather that Summer has to offer, but this year it has come with a menacing warning of the road ahead. While we can escape from the worst of the heat by discarding heavy clothing, staying indoors, and eating food from our cold stores, bumblebees cannot do the same.
Their fur coats and tubby bodies are designed to retain the heat, but they cannot survive if they heat up above 40C. With air temperatures in the range of 30C+, they soon overheat as their flight muscles burn up energy. The really bad news is that their nest will be full of hungry young bees who will die if not fed by the team of workers that spend their days foraging. Fortunately, bumblebees work early and late in the day when the temperatures are a bit lower, but this is now in an environment where the flowers have either dried up completely or have much less nectar because of the drought.
There are several ways that we can help this year’s wild bees to survive. It is more important than ever to maintain a “saucer” of water for them, above ground, and in a shaded place. If you have plants in flower such as Echinops, Salvia, Scabious or Knapweed, keep them watered (and dirty washing up water will do). Some perennial wildflowers are coping pretty well so far, and there is a tremendous crop of Phacelia flourishing in a local field (next to the cricket ground) in Cookham.
Another lesson from this heatwave is provided by the wildflower patches in the area. Most look totally dead and unsightly, and are useless for pollinators. This is partly because some wildlife enthusiasts have not learned that there is more to it than scattering a handful of a standard seed-mix and then walking away. No one can get it right first time and we now think that these pollinator-resources must be sown in the Autumn so that the plants can get their roots well developed before the first dry spell arrives in 2023.
That bee that keeps returning to your patch of flowers may well stay loyal to your garden for all of her life, according to scientific research. Individuals were monitored for up to 130 days, and it is clear that they choose their own characteristic way of foraging rather than behaving like flying automata. Behavioural psychologists see this as evidence of personality. Please help that furry individual and her sisters to survive.
Adrian Doble (Bumblebee Conservation Trust volunteer) August 2022