Speaking of bumblebees

Sometimes, hairiest is best. Bumblebees are the most hairy of all bees, and that makes them the best pollinator in the garden. They are able to trap a heavy load of pollen in their shaggy coats, and as they move from flower to flower, they generously share the vital stuff. We all know that bumblebees are very important in the garden. Most people are also aware that their numbers are dwindling in Britain. Although there are 24 known types of bumble in the country, only six of them are commonly seen in gardens. One species which used to be widespread died out with the loss of grasslands, and was declared extinct in the year 2000. So how can we as gardeners befriend our bees?

Top tips

  1. If you find a bumblebee nesting in your garden, let it be. Bumblebees will nest in your garden area, on the ground- perhaps in the earth under the grass in your lawn, in hedges, or even in bird-boxes, because unlike honeybees, they don’t live in permanent colonies.
  2. Don’t be afraid of your bumblebees. They are not aggressive creatures. If a bumble is trapped in your greenhouse, for instance, wait for her to come to rest, then hold out a piece of paper, or even your finger, and let her crawl on board. Take her into an open space, and very, very gently, encourage her onto something else, a leaf or flower or wall, for example.
  3. Cut down on harmful chemicals. For instance, check labels very carefully so that your pesticides and fertilizers will not harm bees.
  4. Have bee-friendly flowers in your gardens.
    1. Open or flat tubular flowers are easier for bees than multi-layered or ruffled blooms.
    2. Scented flowers lure bees; bumbles are already buzzing around Stonehouse gardens which have cherry trees in early flower.
    3. Have plants with brightly coloured blooms. An easy colour to go for is blue. Cultivate blue flowers for your bumbles, as they see blues best (top of the colour spectrum).

The bee in the photograph, here seen busy foraging at the heart of an Inula Orientalis Grandiflora blossom, is a Bombus terrestis worker bee, more commonly known as a buff-tailed bumblebee, and the nation’s favourite bumble. She has a golden-yellow collar behind the head and on the abdomen, like the rest of her kind, but she is a worker bee, not a queen, and her tail is white with a small buff line where it joins the abdomen, which is black. The queen’s tail is entirely buff. All of them, queen or worker, male or female, sport this delicate buff colour. Other bumbles could be entirely ginger, or have orange- red, or white tails.

Alan Wells, beekeeper and gardener living on May Hill in the Forest of Dean, recently spent an hour telling the Stonehouse Gardening Club fascinating stories about bumblebees. He also gave us his own list of bee friendly plants for the garden. He believes that the world “needs more bees and even those of us that are wary of them can play a part in their conservation in their own gardens”. The tips above are from his talk.

Words by Elizabeth Goddard; Photo credit: Alan Wells

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