It feels like an age since we heard buzzing in our gardens, Helen reminds us what is yet to come...
March is my most eagerly awaited month of the year, as it is now that queen bumblebees begin to emerge from hibernation. After the quiet winter months, it’s a joy to hear that tell-tale deep-toned buzz of a queen bumblebee on the wing. When you think of how much time these creatures spend hidden - a bumblebee queen will spend more than half of her life in hibernation, and most of the rest of her time confined to her nest - it’s worth getting outside now to spot one.
I was lucky enough to glimpse my first queen of the year -– a Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) - during a mild spell in the first week of February. She buzzed among the starry blossom of the cherry plums that line the bottom of the garden; a reminder of how important trees are for bees.
This white spangled hedging is a godsend for the emerging queens, particularly Buff-tails. With short tongues, they prefer to feed on squat open flowers, and their large size means they are not agile enough to visit pendulous blooms such as Snowdrops.
If you are considering planting a bee-friendly garden, this is something worth considering. The different species of bumblebee favour different types of flower, according to the length of their tongues, and their size.
Like the Buff-tailed bumblebees, the White-tailed (Bombus lucorum) has a short tongue, as does the Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius), which likes plants with “landing platforms” such as Daisies and Dandelions. The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) has a medium tongue and can probe a range of flower depths, as well as being small enough to visit upside down and drooping flowers such as Comfrey and, later in the year, Bugloss.
Those with the longest tongues are the Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) and Common carder (Bombus pascuorum). They are able to forage on flowers with petals that form long tubes, such as Pulmonaria in the Spring, and Catmint, Delphiniums and Honeysuckle as the year progresses. The Common carder, like the Early bumblebee, also has the benefit of being small enough to visit dangling flowers.
Lots of bee-friendly websites suggest early flowering plants that provide good Spring forage, among them: Flowering Currant, Pulmonaria, Ceanothus, Aubretia, Single Crocus, Hazel, Pussy Willow, English Bluebell, Primrose, Wood Anemone, Skimmia, and Berberis.
We have a selection of these plants in the garden here, but from observing our bumblebee visitors, I would also add:
- Helleborus orientalis 'White'
- Helleborus orientalis 'Pink Spotted Lady'
- Helleborus orientalis 'Pretty Ellen Red'
- Bergenia 'Silberlicht' – Which is often visited by Buff-tailed Queens
- Comfrey Plants – Which is visited by Common carders and Early bumblebees
And if you are able to plant some early blossoming hedging, so much the better!
At this time of year the queens will be feeding on pollen and nectar, to aid the development of their eggs and to provide energy while they search for suitable nesting sites. You might find a queen bee sunbathing to build up her energy supplies. But equally you may spot one that is resting and near exhaustion. This is where you can lend a hand. Provide the bee with some sugar dissolved in water (avoid using unrefined sugar or honey) in the first instance, before coaxing her on to a flowering plant so she can begin to feed on nectar.
Sluggish queens often make remarkable recoveries when aided in this way, and will soon take off with a loud buzz.
Thanks for reading!
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.