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Bumblebee nest boxes don't work

13 January 2014, by Tamera Jones

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 Wildlife Conservation Trust tried out six different nest boxes. Some are available on the internet and from garden centres, 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 bees 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.

'If you bought a car and it didn't go, you'd certainly have a right to complain.' 
- Professor Dave Goulson, University of Stirling

'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 bumblebees and so help increase their numbers and improve crop pollination.

Favourable uptake rates

Indeed, studies in the US, Canada and New Zealand in the 1950s, 60s and early 80s show much more favourable 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


  • We have bumblebees nesting in the ground, in old mouse holes and in clumps of grass. They also like old bird boxes. We did not bother to create special bumblebee boxes. 

    However, my husband made several 'bee hotels' last year from scrap wood, filled them with cut up bamboo and bark. Brilliant. We had lots of fun watching them being explored by solitary bees of all types which subsequently nested. This year we have had an explosion in the population of solitary bees, mining bees and other types. I love it!



  • OldtykeOldtyke Driffield.Posts: 155

    We had bees in the bottom of the rotary drier socket! We bought another and moved it up the garden.

  • Jim MacdJim Macd Posts: 750

    Yes, bumblebees like to nest in old mouse holes, they're attracted by the smell of the mouse and they like the nesting material. I've had several nest in mouse holes and one in a rat hole under my garage but they seemed to get confused when I opened the garage door. The point of the article is to warn buying bee boxes is a waste of money? I made a cavity in a dry stone wall I built and put in an old mouse nest but they bees weren't interested. I thought it would be ideal but they didn't. 

  • BoaterBoater Posts: 241

    Bees are really fussy.

    A couple of years ago my dad appeared to have a honey bee (I think) swarm gathering under his eaves. By chance a local beekeeper has seen them pass his garden and set out on foot to try to find them (by the time he did we had already tried to get in touch with local beekeepers through an association but they are far between in the highlands and we had just given up!).

    He brought his swarm collecting stuff around just in case, but explained how fussy they can be and that what we had wasn't actually a swarm, more of a scouting party that were checking the site out. He said they can take a few hours to decide (they did) and it appeared that most of the nest came round to check it out because there were a lot of bees, but until the queen turns up you don't actually have a swarm to start a new hive. After a couple of hours no queen turned up and the bees disappeared, presumably they had been viewing several properties simultaneously and decided they preferred a different one.

    Bumblebees nest differently to honey bees in much smaller numbers, but I'm not at all surprised that they are equally fussy about nest sites - especially with so few bees around these days to compete for the good sites image

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