Wildlife & Nature to See in March : Bumblebees

Great Yellow Bumblebee. Photo credit Laurie Campbell

Wildlife to See in March : Bumblebees

The Bee
by Emily Dickinson

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flowers goes,
Their velvet masonry
Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While she, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.
Her feet are shod with gauze,
Her helmet is of gold;
Her breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.
Her labor is a chant,
Her idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!


Looking out of the window at the heavy sheets of sleet thrashing the river, it’s hard to believe that spring is around the corner. But of course it is, and rowdy collared doves are puffing themselves up to impress the ladies despite the gloomy weather.

I for one don’t start to feel spring-like until the first groggy invertebrates have raised themselves from their overwinter sleeps. That’s why this month I will be searching for bumblebees, specifically the emerging queen bees who should start to appear in mid-March.

Britain is home to 24 types of bumblebee*, the first two species to appear in the springtime are Bombus terrestris and Bombus lucorum. Terrestris is our largest bee species, and queens are an orange shade around the abdomen, when compared to lucorum’s more yellow stripes. Worker bees from both species are difficult to tell apart, except by dissection (only please don’t try this!). The individuals emerging in March will be queen bees, who have slept underground or in bug hotels (http://www.buglife.org.uk/discoverbugs/bugbuddies/) over the winter months. If you find a grounded bee during this period, it is likely to have been knocked down by a rain shower, and needs to get warm. If you’re feeling charitable (and how could you not, when confronted with such a friendly, furry insect), pick her up on a piece of card and move her somewhere warm and preferably sunny.

The sleepy queens will be looking to gorge themselves on nectar and pollen, from flowers such as bluebells and willow catkins, before flying low to the ground searching for a nest site. Some nest in abandoned rodent holes; others in leaf litter or long grass. Once settled in, she will stock her larder with nectar, and lay her first batch of eggs for the season, which she incubates by sitting on and shivering her wing muscles to produce warmth. It only takes a few days for grubs to hatch out, and begin to feed on her stored nectar and pollen. Once these pupate within a few weeks, the male worker bees begin to help collecting food and enlarging the nest. At this point the queen can begin laying both male and female eggs, as the females will become the new queens of the next season. By the end of summer the new queens leave to find over-winter burrows, and the worker bees and old queen will die.

British bee numbers have become a big environmental talking point lately, with a shocking decline occurring across the country (and abroad) in both honey and bumble species, due to a complex mixture of habitat loss, parasites and diseases. Experts are also predicting lower numbers this year because of the exceptionally cold winter, although native bumblebee numbers have already halved since the 1950s. These concerns were highlighted in the brilliant documentary ‘The Vanishing of the Bees’ which was released in October 2009. Although largely focused on the honey bee rather than the bumble, the film is well-worth a watch.

As for making a difference in our own gardens, why not make a spring resolution to plant more native wildflowers for bees? According to the BBC’s gardening pages, wherever you live in the UK your garden should be able to attract at least six species of bumblebee. Even a small window box can make a big difference to a bumblebee colony, with particular favourites being lavender, foxglove and honeysuckle. Bumblebees often nest in tussocks of long grass or moss, so try to leave areas of lawn free to grow wild – after all, it means less mowing for you.

For help in identifying your bee species, visit: http://www.bumblebee.org/key.htm

For more information about supporting bumblebees, visit the Bumblebee Conservation Trust: and Buglife:

*Sadly this number was once 27, but already three species have dies out.

Article by Lizzy Dening You can follow Lizzy on Twitter or go to her website