Bumblebees are struggling to survive. In the last eighty years, two species have become extinct and the others are in dramatic decline. Traditional orchards can provide a haven for bumblebees [and solitary bees] particularly if the grassland beneath the trees supports a wide range of bee-friendly flowers. In return, bumblebees will provide a free pollinating service for the fruit trees as they forage for pollen and nectar in spring.
The UK has 24 species of Bumblebee. Six are common and still fairly widespread, but the remainder are in decline mainly due to the loss of wildflower-rich grassland -estimated at over 97% loss since 1940.
Grassland flowers and hedges around orchards are vital for bumblebees throughout their life cycle. In the spring, once temperatures begin to rise, queen bumblebees emerge out of hibernation. She needs to build up her reserves quickly so that she can start establishing a new nest. Apple, pear, cherry and plum blossom are all important sources of early food for her.
The queen then gathers nectar to store inside the nest before she lays her first batch of eggs. These will hatch into female workers. Without a good source of early nectar and pollen there is a danger the queen and the nest will die. Throughout the summer the queen will continue to produce young worker bees who need plenty of nectar and pollen to help the nest survive and grow.
It is only in late summer that the queen begins to produce male offspring and new queens. This requires a lot of energy and will only happen if the nest has reached a large size with a plentiful store of food.
The male bumblebee once it has left the nest cannot return and has to forage for itself. Its only role is to mate with new queens from other nests. After mating, the male will die as will the old queens and worker bees. It is only the newly fertilised queens that survive to hibernate through the winter and establish new nests the following spring.
Small changes in the way orchards are managed can improve both the quality and quantity of foraging habitat that will help to conserve these important pollinators. [See Managing The Orchard Floor As A Meadow] According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, sowing a clover-rich strip around the edge of the orchard is an easy and simple way to help them. Hedges and hedge bases should not be disturbed between March and late September as they provide vital foraging, nesting and hibernation sites.