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Are all bees monarchists?

Sweat bees at a wood in the Scottish Highlands are being studied to solve one of the great mysteries of insect politics: what makes bees monarchist? The University of Exeter research team is comparing the lifestyle of bees at Ledmore and Migdale Wood, Sutherland, with that of their Cornish cousins.

Why study sweat bees?

Sweat bees are so named because some of their relatives in the tropics lick salt from people’s skin.

These bees live very different lives depending on where they are in Britain. In the south of England, they live in the kind of colonies most of us associate with bees - well organised communities with a queen bee served by worker bees. 

But in the north, royalty is out and the bees become republicans. Scottish sweat bees live solitary lives with each female making a burrow of her own. All bees are equal with no queens or workers.

One of Ledmore and Migdale’s many sweat bees (Photo: Rebecca Boulton)
One of Ledmore and Migdale’s many sweat bees (Photo: Rebecca Boulton)

Impact of the seasons

To live a royal life, the bees seem to need the longer summer season found in the south. This gives a queen the chance to raise an army of workers.

With their help, she can then raise more queens later in the year. The bees are ready to emerge the following spring to start the process over again.

Shorter seasons in the north mean the insects don’t have enough time for this cycle of reproduction. Citizen bee meets citizen bee to produce thoroughly republican offspring!

Climate is thought to be the trigger for the switch between lifestyles. The research team now wants to find out more about the detailed mechanisms involved.

Ledmore and Migdale is Woodland Trust’s most northerly site (Photo: John MacPherson/WTML)
Ledmore and Migdale is Woodland Trust’s most northerly site (Photo: John MacPherson/WTML)

What’s the buzz about Ledmore and Migdale?

The bee boffins have colonies near their Cornish campus at Penryn to study, but were anxious to find populations in the north to compare. They travelled to Scotland in the summer and found just what they needed at Ledmore and Migdale – solitary living sweat bees in abundance.

Our wood is now the northernmost location in a three year study.

Researchers have sunk 12 buckets into the soil for the bees to colonise - four groups of three buckets. The team will examine the burrows inside the buckets throughout the study to see how many insects have moved in and how they're doing.

It is a fascinating piece of work and we can’t wait to find out what emerges from the research. The three years of data collection will be followed by number crunching and analysis, so we hope to see the results in 2021.

A researcher sinking bee buckets at Ledmore and Migdale (Photo: Rebecca Boulton)
A researcher sinking bee buckets at Ledmore and Migdale (Photo: Rebecca Boulton)

Bees need trees

Trees offer an important source of food for bees and other pollinators. A big tree can offer up thousands of flower heads.

Many bee species need food to forage from early spring through to late autumn. When few plants are in flower, native trees including hazel, alder and willow can provide early sources of food.

In fact, bees pollinate a third of the food crops we eat and 80% of flowering plants. It's essential we understand and protect them as they face climate change and other threats such as pesticides.

We plant and protect woods to help bees and other wildlife thrive

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