Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee or large earth bumblebee is one of the most numerous bumblebee species in Europe. Bombus terrestris is the largest of the bumblebee species. Bombus terrestris is one of the main species used in greenhouse pollination, and consequently can be found in many countries and areas where it is not native; Tasmania for example. The queen is 2.0–2.7 cm long, while the workers are 1.5–2.0 cm. The latter are characterized by their white-ended abdomens and look (apart from their yellowish bands being darker in direct comparison) just like those of the white-tailed bumblebee, B. lucorum, a close relative. The queens of B. terrestris have the namesake buff-white abdomen ("tail") tip; this area is white like in the workers in B. lucorum.
These bees can navigate their way back to the nest from a distance as far away as 13 km (8.1 mi), although most forage within 5 km of their nest.
The first bumblebees to be seen in spring are the queens; only the queen hibernates through the winter. The queen is much bigger than the workers, which appear later. As soon as the queen has found some nectar, to replenish her energy reserves, she starts looking for a suitable site to build her nest. The nest site is usually underground; an abandoned mouse burrow is often used. Inside, the queen first builds a nectar pot, which will sustain her during bad weather. She also begins to build up a pollen larder, which will feed her brood.
The queen then lays a small batch of eggs. Once these hatch, she tends the larvae, feeding them with nectar and pollen. When the larvae are grown, they pupate, and about two weeks later, the first worker bumblebees emerge. These workers forage for nectar and pollen for the colony, and tend later generations of larvae. The queen then concentrates on egg laying and does not need to leave the nest again. The workers are smaller than the queen, and only live for a few weeks. The foraging range and frequency of workers depends on the quality and distribution of available forage, but most workers forage within a few hundred metres of their nest.
Towards the end of summer, the queen lays some unfertilized eggs which develop into male bees. Some eggs are also laid which receive extra food and pupate to become new queens. When the males emerge from the nest, they do not return, foraging only for themselves. They seek out the new queens and mate with them.
B. terrestris is thought to be a mainly singly mating species. This is unusual for social insect queens where mating with several males (polyandry) has been shown to have several benefits. The lack of multiple mating by B. terrestris queens may be caused by male interference in the process. B. terrestris males plug the female's sexual tract with a sticky secretion during mating which appears to reduce the female's ability to successfully mate with other males for several days. When the autumn cold weather sets in, all but the young queens die. The latter seek out a safe place to hibernate.
Since 1987, B. terrestris has been bred commercially for use as a pollinator for European greenhouse crops, particularly tomatoes — a task which was previously carried out by human hand. B. terrestris has been commercially reared in New Zealand since the early 1990s and is now used in at least North Africa, Japan, Korea, and Russia, with the global trade in bumblebee colonies probably exceeding 1 million nests per year.
Effect of pesticide exposure on B. terrestris
In their 2014 study published in Functional Ecology researchers using Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging technology on the bees, found that a sublethal exposure to either a neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) and/or a pyrethroid (?-cyhalothrin) over a four-week period caused an impairment of the bumble bee's ability to forage.
In 2008, the Australian government banned the live import of B. terrestris into Australia on the grounds that it would present a significant risk of becoming a feral species and thereby present a threat to native fauna and flora. In 2004, this bumblebee was classified as a 'Key Threatening Process' by the Scientific Committee of the New South Wales Department of Environment. It is also classified as an "invasive alien species" in Japan.
This species was introduced to Chile in 1998. It has crossed into Argentina, and is spreading at about 275 km per year. Where it occurs, the only bumblebee native to southern South America, Bombus dahlbomii, disappears within weeks. The previously introduced (1982) Bombus ruderatus is also seriously affected. The cause is thought to be the parasite Apicystis bombi, an organism carried by the buff-tails, but which has no adverse effect on that species.
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- What Harm Could Exotic Bumblebees Do in Australia? - a report by Australian Native Bee Research Centre