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Introducing the latest blogger to join the team here at Garlic & Sapphire, Helen D. Enjoy this lovely post, the first in her new series entitled 'The Pollinator Friendly Patch'...

It happened at the weekend.  Following a flurry of sightings on Twitter, I heard the sound that for me marks the beginning of Spring: the unmistakable buzz of a large, fuzzy bumblebee.  She buzzed and bumbled around a window at the back of the house before flying on, searching for food and a potential nest site.

A tawny mining bee emerging from its nest

She will be a queen, newly-emerged from hibernation, in need of pollen and nectar, which our gardens can easily provide.  Spring bulbs and blossom, hellebores, pulmonarias, and primroses, all offer early garden forage for bumbles while cheering up our beds and borders through these earliest months of the year. As she flew on, I hoped she would find somewhere suitable in our garden to build her nest. 

Imagining an abundance of bumblebees buzzing from flower to flower, I thought of the good things to come - of peas, beans, tomatoes, and courgettes filling the new raised bed near the kitchen; and of apples and cherry plums adorning the old fruit trees.  Even this simplest of harvests requires pollination by insects such as bumblebees, so I willed her to stay and investigate the garden further. She may choose to make her nest under the shed or perhaps prefer the warmth of the compost heap.  There she will lay her first batch of eggs and rear a family of female workers who will help her build a colony. 

During the summer she will continue to lay eggs while her family of workers forage for food, fill wax pots with nectar and pollen, and defend against predators.  By the end of the summer, she will start rearing male bees and new queens.  The males will leave the nest in search of young queens to mate with and then, their business done, they will die.  Eventually the old queen and her colony will expire too, leaving the newly-mated queens to hibernate and to begin the cycle again the following Spring.

The queen bumblebee - a Bombus terrestris or buff-tailed bumblebee

Bumblebee queens are most likely to nest where there is an ample source of pollen and nectar close by.  Luckily we have several newly-created beds to plant up providing an opportunity to create a paradise for pollinators, and to increase our chances of attracting nest-seeking bumblebee queens. Elsewhere in the garden snowdrops, hellebores, winter aconites, cowslips, and a froth of cherry plum blossom, greet the first emerging bees, along with clumps of violets and celandines that have seeded themselves here from the woods beyond. 

To these we plan to add crocuses, fritillaries, primroses, and a new discovery for me – a white-flowered lungwort, Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst’, spotted over at Sarah Raven, where pollinator-friendly plants are all helpfully labeled with the RHS’s Perfect for Pollinators bee symbol.

An andrena carantonica

Over the coming weeks other types of bee will emerge.  It will be time to welcome the gentle solitary bees, andrena carantonica (above), that greeted our arrival at the House at Nab End.  I will search the flowerbeds for the distinctive volcano-shaped mounds made by nesting tawny mining bees (andrena fulva), and scan the walls of the house for the red mason bees (osmia rufa, below) that like to sun themselves on the warm bricks.

A red mason bee

For now though I am still listening out for the heavy buzz of the big bumblebee queens, hoping to spot more before they enter the confinement of their nests for the rest of the year.

Thanks for reading,

Helen Duncan sig

Helen D writes about simple pleasures and seasonal observations at The House at Nab End. She is a volunteer BeeWalker for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and her gardening is inspired by her love of the natural world.