You'll see in some of our blogs that we keep some bumblebees indoors.
BUMBLEBEES ARE NOT PETS AND MUST NOT/CANNOT BE TREATED AS PETS. PLEASE DON'T TRY TO KEEP BUMBLEBEES INDOORS.
So, why do we have some indoors?
The bumblebees we care for indoors are basically rescued bees from our colony that have no chance of survival outside. In most cases they can't fly for some reason. Providing they stay in their nest for their life, then this is not a problem and some bumblebees will indeed do so, by taking on a role of nest maintenance, security etc. - relying on the rest of the colony to provide for them.
However, not all "flight-impaired" bumblebees do stay in the nest as most have the natural instinct to go out and forage. Time after time they will leave the nest, even if we keep returning them. This is a problem, because bumblebees that can't fly, can't forage and thus can't feed. They can't escape predators easily either, and they can't escape tricky situations (e.g. finding somewhere to shelter quickly if they get caught out in the open in cold/rain).
All of these factors mean that "flight impaired" bumblebees outside of the nest will quickly perish.
As conservationists we feel a moral instinct to care for these bumblebees, and allow them to live for their natural lifetime, even though they cannot fulfil their destiny fully and contribute to the overall colony. We can, however, give them some quality of life.
So, specifically the bumblebees that fall into the above category we rescue and provide a safe and stimulating environment for indoors. They are given a nest-space, materials to work with and shelter in, regular warmth and fed pollen and honey-water*.
(*sugar water, while recommended over honey-water, doesn't provide the required nutrients for long-term survival, so it has to be honey-water. Sugar-water is best to rescue a stranded bee that needs an energy boost).
Generally the indoor bumblebees are self-managing, just as their siblings are in the outdoor nest, and follow their own cycles and behaviour patterns. Obviously we have to access their nest space to add food and in doing so there is a natural element of "training" to accept this necessary intrusion. Initially they will give warnings when we invade their space, but as they learn to associate this with the provision of food (reward) this behaviour subsides. Since they will never be returned to a wild environment, this dampening of their warning response doesn't pose any threat to their survival. (And they still continue to warn each other as required).
We absolutely don't capture healthy bumblebees to try and keep in captivity and all our rescued bees go through a period of quarantine and repeated attempts to encourage and allow demonstration of flight, before determining they are unable to fly.
What causes "flight impairment"
We've seen a range of difficulties with our bumblebees that cause the inability to fly, across a spectrum of impairment, including:
- missing wings/limbs due to improper development in the nest (probably insufficient temperature or natural genetic mutation)
- curved, broken or improperly inflated wings - again, poor wing development in the nest
- badly formed body (e.g. twisted)
In general, wing damage due to day-to-day wear and tear is not an issue. It happens naturally and bumblebees can reportedly fly with up to almost 50% wing damage / missing wing tissue. So it's particular muscular or aerodynamic developmental defects that are the issue. It is typically the tiny bees that are affected, again highlighting the fact that developmental issues occured.
Here is a perfect example of a tiny underdeveloped bumblebee that fell from the nest attempting her first flight - we found her in the grass and were able to rescue her. She looks almost perfect, but her wings haven't inflated properly.
So, we can't take it for granted that just because a bumblebee is small and hasn't fully developed that she can't fly - which is why we always go to great pains to check whether they can. Here's a video of a tiny bee on her first flight...