Bumblebee nest boxes don't work

May 06, 2011
Bumblebee nest boxes don't work
Bumblebee and roosting pocket.

Bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies and other pollinating insects are in decline worldwide. So what better way to help stem their decline than by installing a bumblebee nest box in your garden? The only trouble is they don't work.

That's the conclusion of a study to find out if bumblebee nest boxes do the job they're supposed to.

Researchers from the University of Stirling and the Game and Trust tried out six different nest boxes. Some are available on the internet and from garden centers, while another one the researchers designed themselves.

Over their four-year study, they found that not a single commercial nest box 'became occupied or showed any sign of inhabitation' by bumblebees. The only box that showed some success at attracting bumblebees was an underground Heath Robinson-style box designed by the researchers.

But even this box was unreliable – at best the homemade box attracted nesting seven per cent of the time, but at other times the insects shunned this design entirely. Instead, mice, ants or wasps often took up residence.

"We had an inkling that bees don't tend to use the boxes available in garden centres and the like, but we wondered if – with a bit of tweaking – we could get them to work," says bee expert Professor Dave Goulson from the University of Stirling.

During their study, the scientists deployed 736 nest boxes in gardens, on university grounds and on farms in southern England and central Scotland.

On average only 23 were actively used by bumblebees – that's a paltry 3.1 per cent.

"If you bought a car and it didn't go, you'd certainly have a right to complain," says Goulson. "If people buy these nest boxes and they don't work, we don't want them to become disillusioned. It might be better for people to spend their money on planting a lavender bush or buying and sowing wildflower seeds. If they did, they'd soon see bees foraging on them and know they have done their bit to help."

Intensive farming has led to huge losses in bumblebees' favourite habitat throughout the UK. In an attempt to tackle the decline in bumblebees over the last 50 years, the UK government has invested in projects to help restore habitats and support native wildlife, including bumblebees.

As the availability of nesting habitat has also probably fallen because of farming, conservationists think this may also have contributed to the insects' decline. Despite this, much less attention has been paid to finding out what makes a good nesting site for bumblebees.

"It's easy to count bees visiting flowers, but it's really hard to find their nests, so we don't know that much about this area of their life history," says Goulson.

Until this study, it was assumed that nest boxes might encourage and so help increase their numbers and improve crop pollination.

Indeed, studies in the US, Canada and New Zealand in the 1950s, 60s and early 80s show much more favorable nest box uptake rates of between 30 and 50 per cent.

"The difference could be because there were more bees around when those studies were done. There might have been up to ten times as many bees 30 years ago," Goulson says.

Although the researchers found all commercially-available nest boxes to be ineffective, they did figure out the kinds of things bees look for. Normally when bumblebee queens are looking for a nest site, they'll land on the ground and walk into a hole to investigate. So boxes with a hole in a vertical wall 'aren't going to be much use to them,' says Goulson.

"A couple of UK bumblebee species will nest in wooden boxes, but ironically they seem to prefer tit boxes to bumblebee boxes."

At the moment, bumblebee nest box manufacturers don't work with bee experts. But if they did, Goulson says he'd put a stop to using straw in boxes, which the bees don't like because it's too coarse.

"At the very least, nest box manufacturers should include fine material like dry moss, upholsterer's cotton, hair felt or hamster bedding. And most bees prefer to nest in underground boxes rather than above ground," Goulson says.

"If you live in Scotland, bumblebee queens are still busy looking for the best nesting sites, so if you find a relatively undisturbed grassy area, you could spot one zig-zagging over the grass," he adds.


This story is republished courtesy of Planet Earth online, a free, companion website to the award-winning magazine Planet Earth published and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Explore further: Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

More information: Gillian C. Lye, et al, Assessing the efficacy of artificial domiciles for bumblebees, Journal for Nature Conservation, Available online 21 April 2011, doi:10.1016/j.jnc.2010.11.001

Related Stories

Bumblebees make bee line for gardens

Jul 23, 2007

Britain's gardens are vital habitats for nesting bumblebees, new research has found. The results come from the National Bumblebee Nest Survey, which are published online in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied ...

Bumblebee re-introduced to UK

Jun 13, 2009

This month, a campaign was launched to re-introduce the short-haired bumblebee to the UK from New Zealand.

Smells like bees' spirit

Aug 13, 2008

Bumblebees choose whether to search for food according to how stocked their nests are, say scientists from Queen Mary, University of London.

Britain boosts bumblebee battle

Mar 22, 2006

British farmers are being paid about $350 a year to help save bumblebees from extinction by planting a clover mixture at the edges of their fields.

Old bees' memory fades; mirrors recall of mammals

Oct 19, 2010

A study published Oct. 19 in the open access journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE, shows that not just human memories fade. Scientists from Arizona State University and the Norwegian University of ...

Birds take cues from their competitors

Jul 05, 2007

The idea that animals other than humans can learn from one another and pass on local traditions has long been a matter of debate. Now, a new study reveals that some birds learn not only from each other, but also from their ...

Recommended for you

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

17 hours ago

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

19 hours ago

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

19 hours ago

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 6

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nik_2213
not rated yet May 06, 2011
Ah, that would explain why our bee-box hung empty on the shed wall until it rotted and fell off...
MarvO
not rated yet May 06, 2011
OMG! I may have a solution? I had a continual problem with bumblebees nesting in my garden hose near the water storage tanks. (Here in Florida with deep water wells we need to let the H2S gas evaporate.) I finally had to stopper my hose to keep the little buggers out so I could use my hose connected directly to the well head. They were a real nuisance. Maybe they like plastic? Maybe they like a little H2S?
Mastoras
not rated yet May 07, 2011
I think what they like is a small hole, perhaps a dark one, no light. Perhaps some holes drilled on wood will do.
-.
JamesThomas
not rated yet May 07, 2011
MarvO, perhaps you can lay out short pieces of hose and see if they work for nests.
Zippy
not rated yet May 11, 2011
Very disappointing news... However, you can buy live British bumblebee hives online for the garden although they're a lot more expensive than the empty boxes. At least you're guaranteed a colony though!
LarsKristensen
1 / 5 (2) May 12, 2011
A new home for bumble bees will not seem attractive to bumblebees. To make it atraktivt it could be with the old material from an old home for mice.

Bumblebees have homes in the wild will usually use old home from other animals or insects, and especially old home for mice is atraktive for bumblebees.

More news stories

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...