Nature on our doorsteps: The right tools for the right job

By Rosaleen Dwyer

Rosaleen Dwyer is the County Heritage Officer at South Dublin County Council – every week she gives us an insight into the natural heritage around us and the beautiful biodiversity of the plants and creatures

Different species of bumblebees have tongues of different lengths, and this determines which kind of flower the bumblebee visits. 

Those with long tongues visit deep, tube-like flowers such as Honeysuckle.  Short-tongued species feed on smaller, open flowers.

The Garden Bumblebees tongue often dangles free compressor

The Garden Bumblebee's tongue often dangles free

In this way, because they are not all visiting the same type of flower, competition for food is reduced.

The Garden Bumblebee is one of our larger bees and it has a very long tongue, about 1.5cm in length. This is protected inside a sheath or beak-like structure which folds away when the insect is flying. 

When feeding, the bee unfolds the sheath and extracts the tongue, placing it deep down into the back of the long flower tube to reach the nectar. It must be tedious to have to fold away such a long tongue so often, because the Garden Bumblebee often flies with it dangling free as it flies between flowers.

Because bumblebees with short tongues cannot reach the nectar at the bottom of deep flowers, they focus on flatter flowers instead.

Bumblebees with shorter tongues will sometimes take a short cut to the nectar compressor

Bumblebees with shorter tongues will sometimes take a short cut to the nectar!

This, however, doesn’t stop some short-tongued bumblebees taking a clever short-cut, where they bite a little hole through the bottom of the flower tube and directly access the nectar through the hole.

I suppose you have to be inventive when you don’t have the right tools for the job!  

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