Understanding wild bees: why are they important?

By Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

17th April 2023

What do you think of when you see the headline ‘Save the bees?’ If you are one of the majority of adults in the UK, your answer will be ‘honeybees’ or perhaps ‘honey’ because these are the images and headlines you’ll see in the media and social media.

The sting in the tail is that it’s not actually honeybees that need our help because beekeepers manage the hives and they’re not even in decline in the UK.

We’re talking about 'bumblebees’!

Bumblebees in trouble

Bumblebees act as a useful and powerful indicator of the health of our biodiversity and environment and currently, bumblebee populations are being decimated with their numbers and distribution declining. The 24-remaining species of bumblebee in the UK, represent approximately 10% of the world’s bumblebee species.

In the last century, two UK species have become extinct and a third of the species left are in serious trouble.

Shockingly, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world (bottom 10% of all countries) and this is mainly due to intensive agricultural practice to produce more food. Landscape-scale change from areas covered with wildflowers to vast monocultures and use of pesticides have effectively turned our countryside into deserts for pollinating insects and wildlife.

The truth is in the numbers

The wild, fuzzy little winged warriors that need our help don’t live in hives or produce honey but live in nests of between 50-400 bumblebees for a few short months each year. We call this ‘bumblebee season’!

Their super-power is to provide a vital “free-bee” service by pollinating our food crops, and wildflowers as well as fruits and seeds for birds and small mammals. Bumblebees are multi-talented as generalist pollinators (those who visit several plants), but they are also the only bee species able to pollinate some crops, including tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, chillies, kiwi fruit and blueberries.

Did you know?

One in three bites of food we eat on our plate is thanks to bees. Of all the insect-pollinated crops in the UK, honeybees only pollinate between 5-15% which leaves a massive 85-95% to wild pollinating insects of which bumblebees are ‘star’ performers.

How do you know what a bumblebee is?

If they are fat and furry, there’s a very good chance it’s a bumblebee and they come in a range of different colours too! The best way to identify a bumblebee is through its tail colour of which they fall into three groups; white-tailed, red-tailed and ginger-yellow. Why not see if you can identify a bumblebee at www.bumblebeeconservation.org/identify-a-bumblebee/

3 different bees for comparison

How can I help bumblebees?

Our science and conservation work have shown that there are simple things we can all do to restore thriving bumblebee populations and in doing so, help protect our precious biodiversity from climate change and other environmental threats. This doesn’t mean introducing more honeybee hives into our gardens and countryside – that would be like saying in order to protect our threatened bird species, everyone should breed chickens!

To find out more about how you can ‘Bee the Change’ head to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website for lots of free information, inspiration and ‘how to’ guides, all of which you can download too.