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Bees

There are over 250 species of bee in the UK, of which 178 species have been recorded in Wales. The majority of these are solitary bees, but some, like the better-known bumblebees and honeybee, are social insects and live in colonies.

Solitary bees, such as the red mason bee, will mate and then the female will find or create a suitable nest site, lay eggs and seal off the burrow and leave the young grubs to survive on the food she has provided.

Social bees live much more complex lives. Bumblebee colonies develop from a single queen which nests underground over winter. When she emerges from hibernation in spring, she'll look for a nest site in tussocky grass, tree holes or even underground in old mouse burrows.

She'll lay and incubate the first eggs which will develop into workers and help her expand the nest and collect pollen and nectar for the next brood which will include males and the next generation of queens. After mating, the males and old queen will die and the new queens will hibernate, ready to start a new colony the following spring.

Unlike bumblebees, honey bee colonies don't die off each year, and therefore they need to produce enough honey to see them through the winter. To achieve this, honey bees live in much larger colonies than bumblebees. The queen can lay up to 2000 eggs per day, building up a colony of 50,000 made up of drones (males) and workers (sterile females).

Threats

Changes in farming practices have reduced the number and variety of flowers, and therefore the availability of pollen and nectar. As their food supply has declined, so too have the numbers of bees across Europe.

In the UK, 3 of the 25 species of native bumblebee have become extinct, and more could follow their fate without conservation action. Five bumblebee species are Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority species to hopefully protect them from extinction.

There are very few wild colonies of honey bees left in the UK, so beekeepers are really important. However, even these colonies are under threat from viruses spread by the varroa mite.

The Pembrokeshire Beekeepers' Association has recently received lottery funding to breed queens from native Welsh stock which are thought to be less prone to disease. These bees will be used to restock the lost colonies in Pembrokeshire, and eventually throughout Wales

What you can do

If you're interested in taking up beekeeping, contact the Welsh Beekeepers Association to find your local branch at http://www.wbka.com.

Gardens provide valuable refuges for bumblebees, particularly where there are a variety of potential nesting sites such as hedges, banks of bare earth or compost heaps. Planting bright scented wild flowers, or traditional cottage garden flowers for them to feed from can also help.

Help the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to find out more about these insects by taking part in their survey.


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