Thursday 1 March 2018

Bumblebee queens in spring: The awakening of sleeping beauties

Buff-tailed bumblebee queen
The first bumblebee queen of the year is always eagerly anticipated. Just before the freezing weather arrived at the weekend I saw my first one, a buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris). They are normally the first ones you will see, from mid-February onwards, very large bumblebees with two yellow bands and a buff-coloured tail. If you see a slightly smaller bumblebee, with two yellow bands as well but a pure white tail, you have a white-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus lucorum).

Also emerging very early, normally at the end of February, is the tree bumblebee queen (Bombus hypnorum) which has a unique colour combination (orange, black and a white tail) which makes her easy to identify.

Tree bumblebee queen

Early bumblebee queen
Another bumblebee queen you will encounter in March is the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) which has two yellow bands and an orange tail. Also in March a very large bumblebee is emerging, black with a red tail, aptly named red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius). If you see a large bumblebee queen with three yellow bands, a long face and a white tail it could either be the garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) or the ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus). Both look very similar and are hard to tell apart.

Red-tailed bumblebee queen
Garden bumblebee queen

The bumblebee to emerge latest in spring, often at the end of March or in April, is normally the common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) which is yellowish or reddish-brown in colour.

There are 25 bumblebee species in the UK in total but the above are the most common ones you can see in your garden.

Common carder bumblebee queen

The queens you see emerging now are the new queens produced last year which have overwintered somewhere underground or in other sheltered places, protected from frost and rain. I once found a hibernating queen in my compost heap. I now try to leave my compost area alone in winter to provide a save place for wildlife to hibernate.

White-tailed bumblebee queen

Buff-tailed queen visiting snowdrop flowers
Emerging queens will be very hungry and need nectar-rich flowers to fill their empty stomach. The crocuses on my allotment always seem to be highly attractive, it only needs some warm sunshine at the end of February and the bumblebee queens appear. Last year a buff-tailed bumblebee queen was visiting my snowdrops but I think crocuses are offering more food. Primroses and cowslips are good bumblebee flowers, as well as the pretty pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris). I have also planted lungwort (Pulmonaria) in different places on the allotment and have seen common carder bumblebee queens visiting the flowers. Fruit bushes such as honeyberry and gooseberry seem to be good nectar plants as well.

Common carder bumblebee queen visiting pulmonaria flowers

Don`t forget wild plants, if you can leave some white and red dead-nettles to flower in a corner of your garden you will make some bumblebees very happy!

Red-tailed bumblebee visiting red dead-nettle flowers

Once the bumblebee queens have stilled their hunger they will start to look for suitable places to build their nests. Different bumblebee species have different preferences, some look for old mice nests and other holes in the ground, others for tussocky grass. Tree bumblebees prefer bird nestboxes or cavities under roofs or in trees. Not all nests will be successful but there are always enough to provide the new generation of queens for next year.

Red-tailed bumblebee queen drinking nectar from crocus flowers

So why not look out for bumblebee queens this spring and see how many different species you can find? I will keep you updated what I find on my allotment.

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