Conservationists are concerned that the cold snap could kill hibernating bees, leading to a pollination crisis next summer. With temperatures forecast to plummet to –20°C in some parts of the UK, bees that are not deep underground may freeze to death.
A light covering of snow won't stop a bumblebee, but the prolonged cold snap will. (Photo: Bob White)
Whilst domesticated honeybees survive the winter in hives that are looked after by beekeepers, the UK also has 24 species of wild bumblebee that do not overwinter as a colony. Instead, just the queen bee hibernates underground until the warmth of spring wakes her. Such a prolonged cold spell may threaten to kill these hibernating queens, so bee numbers next summer could be very low.
Dr Ben Darvill, Director of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) explains: "A fertilised queen bumblebee is all that survives from one year to the next, so hibernation survival is absolutely crucial. A mass die-off in winter would have massive consequences for bee numbers in the following summer. Yet very little is known about hibernation — it's all hidden underground. We suspect that they tunnel deeply enough to avoid being frozen, but in a winter like this the ground may freeze more deeply than usual."
Low bee numbers would do more than quieten the buzz in our summer gardens. Between them, honeybees and bumblebees pollinate the vast majority of the UK's flowering crops and wild flowers — a service worth millions of pounds to the economy. Diseases have already hit honeybees hard and wild bumblebees are struggling too. They should be our free insurance strategy but sadly there are no longer enough wild flowers in most farmland areas to support healthy populations. Two bumblebee species have become extinct in the last 70 years and six more give serious cause for concern. The current near-arctic conditions sweeping the UK could make matters worse.
However, it is not yet certain that bumblebees will be badly affected, as Dr. Darvill explains: "There are bumblebee species that live right up in the Arctic Circle, so freezing conditions do not necessarily kill off hibernating queens. However, we are concerned that the UK's bumblebees are not so well adapted to such cold conditions — they may not be hibernating deeply enough underground for example. Although the layer of snow actually insulates the ground to begin with, the soil in many areas is now frozen. At a time when the nation's favourite pollinators are already struggling, they could do without this additional challenge. We sincerely hope that enough bees survive the winter to avoid a pollination crisis in 2010. The colour on our dinner plates and the future of our wild flowers depends on it."
To ensure that queen bees emerging in Spring have the best possible chance of starting a new colony, please make sure that your garden if full of their favourite flowers. For more information on how you can help to improve the 'plight of the bumblebee', visit www.bumblebeeconservation.org
or phone BBCT on 01786 467818.
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