There is always something to see at Pagham Harbour. On the morning of Friday 30 July, however, before I ran a bumblebee identification workshop at the internationally important nature reserve, Storm Evert was forecasting 30mph winds. But I was still convinced we'd see some bumblebees...
You'd think that something as small and light as a strawberry wouldn't be able to hurl its tiny body through a gale or be strong enough to grip onto a swaying, wind-battered flower. In fact, bumblebees are more than capable. Powerful flight muscles are packed into their stout little bodies, which are covered in thick fur. These can propel them through high winds, in comparison to honeybees and butterflies who find it difficult to get airborne in wind above 20mph. In addition, bumblebees can dislocate their flight muscles and shiver them to keep warm which is very useful on wet, windy days. Even in winter, you can see big queen bumblebees happily foraging on gorse, heather and crocus, when no other insects are out and temperatures have barely reached double figures.
Bumblebees evolved in the Himalayas, around 25 to 40 million years ago. They are designed to withstand bleak, windy, mountainous climates and don't actually fare very well in hot places. They are thought to have spread from Asia during a period of global cooling, colonising lands as far as South America, though most bumblebees here are found in the cooler Andes.
When I drove onto the reserve my thoughts turned bleak as I noticed all the teasels were nodding almost horizontally across the paths and the clouds were darkening. Perhaps not a great start for a bumblebee workshop?
Despite the wind, the sun actually came out after a brief downpour, and we spotted over 25 individuals of four species: buff-tailed, white-tailed, common carder, and garden bumblebees. Some were doing what they do best - ruthlessly foraging for nectar and pollen on flowers before setting off back to their nest - while others were looking a bit bedraggled and rainsoaked, clinging to petals and leaves. These were mainly workers (females) who were probably at the end of their naturally short lifecycle, when they are weaker and can get stranded in bad weather. I didn't need to pot these, they stayed very still for us all to have a close look.
I also had a surprise for my group. A week ago, I had walked my dogs at the Harbour on the Sidlesham side and found a bumblebee nest. I was so excited to share this with my workshop group who not only saw the nest entrance but a humongous queen who emerged and showed off her curves before accelerating along the hedgerow - completely unperturbed by the wind! It turns out there was also a second nest further up the path with lots of activity happening outside the nest. It's not common to see a nest, so two in one day was a real treat! The weather did nothing to slow the activity of the workers coming and going.
There are some cases where bumblebees may need a helping hand if they are caught stranded in bad weather. The best thing to do is to pop the bumblebee on a flower so it can feed itself. Or, you can offer them a drink of sugar water to help them regain their strength BUT read the steps on this page first to make sure you're doing the right thing by the bee. Remember, some bumblebees have really short lives and many (all the worker females and all males) perish naturally by the end of summer as nesting season ends, so sometimes it's best to let nature take its course.