Bumblebee queens – where do they nest ?

March 22, 2011

in Bumblebees and their ecology

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Bumblebee nest site hidden by vegetation. Somewhere here is one of several entrances to a nest site underneath a large manure heap

Numerous places have been used for nest sites, including places you would not think would be used. Different species have different requirements, searching different areas to find their chosen nest site. From the literature I had available I have compiled the following list: Compost heaps, compost bins, old mice or vole nests, manure heaps, rockeries, bird boxes, thick undergrowth, grassy tussocks, leaf litter, under decking, under sheds, in ivy covered walls, hedge banks, squirrels dreys, holes in trees, artificial cavities, field margins and under tree roots… and there’s more below!



Bumblebee nest site under a manure heap

Standing and observing the activity of the workers coming and going will eventually reveal the entrance to the nest site. This particular nest had a least 3 entrances to my knowledge.


Buff tailed bumblebee (B. terrestris) worker returning to her manure heap home!

The next photographs, below, I was lucky to find a nest site entrance as I was just watching some birds on a river bank when I saw a couple of workers and just chanced my arm to see if a nest was nearby. It took me about 30 minutes to find it.

Red tailed bumblebee’s (B. Lapidarius) nest site – I eventually found that the nest was somewhere in this steep sided river bank area

I cleared away the vegetation to reveal the nest site entrance, which I replaced after taking the photographs . It just requires a little patience to find a bumblebee nest. But a lot of luck as well!

A red tailed bumblebee worker – B. Lapidarius returns to her nest amongst rubble covered with soil and sparse vegetation on a steep riverside bank

More unusual places have been found such as a rolled up carpet, a disused chair, artifical bumblebee nest boxes, under a lawnmower, under an upturned sink, in a coal heap, a disused robins nest, an old cushion, lagging on a water pipe, under upturned flower pots, the pocket of a fur coat and an old fishing net filled with wadding! The mind boggles. The one thing these sites had in common was they provided a warm and  well insulated place to build a nest.

Buff tailed bumblebee – B.terrestris  – Why cant I get out of the garage ?

In my own garden they have nested in the ‘junk’ (!) on the loft type floor in the garage. For this nest I opened the two windows fully to allow them access when the door was closed. Both windows and the open door were used by the workers. If I closed one window and watched, the bumblebees simply turned around and tried to use the same window again. And again. And again.  The flight path to and from this particular window may simply have been imprinted upon their memories and they were baffled as to why they could not get out. They did not try to exit through the open window next to it nor the open door. As soon as I opened the window, out they went. The same happened if I closed the door.  So in the end I simply had to keep both windows and the door open all of the time.

In my garden this red tailed bumblebee -B. Lapidarius worker is returning to a successful nest that produced queens in a bird box!

I had them nest in a blue tit box 5 foot high hanging from a wooden fence, (above), inside the gnarled trunk of a large buddelia bush, in a pile of feathers from a pillow case next to a compost heap and another in my compost heap. Away from home, over the years, I have found them nesting under wooden garden sheds, in straw/manure heaps, under tree roots, along hedgerow banks in the soil under the hedges, in a rubble heap covered in soil and also using an air brick of an outer brick wall to gain access to a house wall cavity.

Scarcity of suitable nest site

You would think that with such a huge and diverse range of nest sites used by queens, the opportunity would be there for many more such sites to be used. There is simply just so many such sites throughout the UK. The important word here though is suitability. The site itself may well be suitable. The queen could select the best site around. BUT if there is no food nearby, i.e. flowers that are producing pollen and nectar then the site may be suitable physically, but resource wise its not going to be a successful nest site. The queen will need food for herself, food to store and food for her young. This lack of food has been found to be a limiting factor for bumblebee populations. Many young queens and their success or failure in selecting a nest site, depends upon a spring time floral resource.

Some queens can find vital nourishment for themselves and their new brood from wild primroses

This is something that queens may well have to ‘factor in’ when selecting a suitable site. She can only see the flowers that are flowering at the time that she is flying overhead. She will not be aware, that potentially there are enough flowers in that area to provide the nourishment need for her prospect colony. Some of these flowers may not have even germinated yet, those that have will, be small and still growing, but not flowering. Ultimately the success or failure for our bumblebee populations may well depend upon the supply of spring time nectar and pollen. In another article I will recommend some plants that can help them to find a more suitable site. Though finding a suitable site does have its hazards…other queens will find it and fight to the death for it.

Bumblebee wax cells- all that remains of a once thriving nest

For more information go to    http://www.bumblebeeconservation.org.uk/

See my radical new design of bumblebee nest box to help protect against pests and give them a desirable nest site


Benton, T. (2006) “Bumblebees” Harper Collins, London

Goulson, D. ( 2010) “Bumblebees” Oxford University Press,

Prys-Jones, O E. & Corbet S A. (1987), “Bumblebees” University of Cambridge

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