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Plight of the bumblebee

Outdoor Living

EVER INDUSTRIOUS A male white-tailed bumblebee. Pic: gailhampshire

Encounters with white-tailed bumblebees point to emotional intelligence

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

We stopped for an impromptu picnic on the shore of Lough Feeagh, where we skimmed flat pebbles over the still water and pondered the history of the old hunting lodge at Treanlaur. The lodge stands prominent and strong and commands a privileged view over Feeagh and the surrounding hills. How many glorious days and nights must have been spent in this wilderness setting, when the lough was filled with fish and the land with wild Irish game, where the only sounds were those of the wild.
Even then the so-called sporting rights were reserved for men with position and power, while the sour ground gave little to the poor, bar rocks to build cabins and walls. To this day it defies improvement and even where acres have been cleared and set out to grass the obstinate hill soon sows its own crop of bramble, thorn and bracken, which it employs to recover what it can.
I flung a stone for all who might have ever done the same over the last thousand years. It landed with a splash reminiscent of a white trout pitching and I sought another to bring the sound alive once more. There, one flat and broad enough to send across the wavelets; but wait, beneath it something stirred. A bumblebee. But why would a bumblebee be hiding beneath a flat rock? Perhaps it was driven to shelter from one of these rainstorms, had chilled overnight and no longer had the strength or inclination to re-enter the world.
I picked it up and it sat on the palm of my hand, trembling lightly. A white-tailed bumblebee, as common and widespread a bee as might be found. It lacked pollen baskets on its rear legs – a male then; only the females are endowed with stinging mechanisms so there was no danger of being stung. When we offered our bee a fuschia flower it eagerly inserted its proboscis and extracted whatever store of nectar was hidden within those crimson folds.
I placed a pinch of sugar in my palm and dissolved it in a few drops of water. The bee was delighted and drank thirstily, using not just it’s proboscis but also the tiny and flacid pink tongue that extended from the end of that appendage. Filled with syrup, the insect was energised and took to the air.
We thought it would leave then, but it wasn’t finished yet. Several times it returned to my hand for a few more sips of that life sustaining fluid, which we happily provided. Eventually, after buzzing around our heads as if to show its appreciation it took itself away to the rocky hill, where it undoubtedly had its home.
Later that evening I was walking close to my own home and discovered more white-tailed bumblebees, this time about fifteen or so, crawling over the remnants of their own nest, which had been torn from its place in an earthen bank and destroyed. There could only be one culprit.
Badgers are inordinately fond of honey and seek out bees’ nests, which they can easily expose using their powerful claws. These bees must have been robbed the night before, and were now digging frantically through the loose soil in search of whatever might remain of their family. It made a pathetic sight. Still, I was struck by the eager industry of these insects as they displayed qualities we might not readily associate with such lower animals.
The destruction of their nest had obviously caused them great distress. When I moved some of the soil with a stick (both male and female bees were involved in the mission, so I thought it best to act with prudence) some went straight to the disturbance and redoubled their efforts to locate their missing larvae, while others flew from my hand to my head and back to the nest site, as if encouraging me to help all the more. Not once did I feel they were threatening or showing any annoyance as if they felt I was interfering.
There are 20 different species of bumblebee in Ireland, 14 real ones and six so-called cuckoo bees, which emulate the cuckoo and lay their eggs in the nests of others, entrusting these with the raising of their offspring. I would imagine they’ve been here far longer than we have, together with the badger, struggling with imbalance.

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