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Bumblebees are still a familiar sight in gardens and in the countryside, foraging for nectar and pollen. There are more than 20 species of bumblebee in Britain, and 11 of these occur in Essex. Many are in decline because sources of food and places to nest are disappearing, as a result of development and intensive farming.

They live in much smaller colonies than those of honey bees or wasps, sometimes numbering only 20 or 30 and rarely more than 100. Unlike honey bees, the colonies do not last through the winter, dying out in late summer or autumn with only the young queens surviving, hibernating in the ground or in holes or crevices. The queens are larger than the workers and are seen mainly early in the season, searching for nest sites and raising the first workers to take over the job of bringing food back for the young.

One common garden species that is usually the first to appear in spring is the early bumblebee. This species often nests in overgrown gardens as well. It is similar to another common but larger species, the red-tailed bumblebee.

Two other common species often seen in gardens are the white-tailed bumblebee and the buff-tailed bumblebee, usually nesting in a chamber underground such as an abandoned mouse-nest.

A group of species known as carder bees nest at or near the surface of the ground, collecting plant material to construct their nests. The common carder bee is the commonest of these but others, such as the red-shanked bumblebee, are uncommon and declining.

The brown-banded carder bee is now very scarce nationally but is still found in Havering and Thurrock, mainly on 'brownfield' sites such as old quarries.

© Tony Gunton

More information

'Bumblebees of Essex' by Ted Benton: everything you need to know about bumblebees and a good read as well.