‘All bees are good guests, once you understand their ways.’ Photograph: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters
I have new house guests – hundreds of them bumble outside the kitchen. Sometimes they get wet or weary, and I revive them with sugar syrup. Occasionally I have to show them where the door is, but they are doing a sterling job pollinating the garden.
I feel this is a great privilege, but others don’t share my view. My local beekeeping newsletter tells of endless worried calls about bee nests. There are 250 or so species of British bees, one of which is the famous honeybee; 20 are social bumbles (there are 25 bumbles in all, but some are cuckoo bumblebees, which act a little like their feathered namesakes: the queens sneak into a social bumblebee nest, kill the queen and then lay their own eggs); the rest are solitary and very small. All are excellent pollinators and good guests, once you understand their ways.
First, only female bees sting. Solitary bees nest in the ground or in cavities such as walls; they are tiny, harmless and best left alone. Bumbles and honeybees will sting if provoked. Some honeybees are like lambs, others not so – it’s down to genetics. Although bumbles sting and can do so repeatedly, you really have to provoke them.
Disturbing a bumble nest does get them riled, so if they aren’t bothering you, leave them alone. An angry bumble will stick out a hind leg; if you continue to bother her, she’ll stick out the opposite one, too. If you ignore this, she’ll roll on her back, as if to say, “Hey, see this? This is my sting.” But even after all this posturing, she doesn’t often sting. Squeezing or sitting on her will elicit a jab, as will going straight into the nest, but mostly she’ll just buzz.
Bumblebee nests can’t be easily moved without disturbing them. They are here only for the summer, and don’t always return to the same spot. Only the queen overwinters, not the colony (unlike honeybees), and she does this in the soil, not the nest. Mostly it’s a matter of putting up with them for a couple of months. Bumbles can’t damage your house; they don’t eat wood, excavate or leave a mess. If their nest entrance is in a doorway or through floorboards, it is possible to use pipe to relocate the entrance. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a guide to this, along with information about how to move a nest, but this should be a last resort and done only at night.
Bumbles don’t swarm, but honeybees do. The last thing on the minds of swarming bees is stinging you: they’re full of honey and looking for a new home. If you see a swarm, call your local beekeeping association: they’ll be rehomed before you know it.