Whilst doing my usual happy rummaging in the garden today, I noticed a large bumblebee with a tail the colour of glowing embers sluggishly clinging to the bark of a field maple. It was quite nippy today, and it seemed that the air temperature was just a little too low for her to be active. She was more than likely a queen red-tailed bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius, searching for a place to sleep away the winter.
Bumblebees are interesting creatures – the only one in a colony to survive the winter is the queen bee, after her honeymoon flight with one of the drones, which also hatch late in the season. She then seeks out a warm, dry place to overwinter - usually burrowing underground on a north or north-west facing, well drained slope.
The first bumblebees that we see in the spring will be the queens, emerged from their winter sleep, and looking for early flowers to provide them with pollen and nectar. We can help them here, by planting things like lungwort, deadnettles, blossoming fruit trees such as plums, apples, pears and cherries, and willows. All of these flower early, giving pollen and nectar. for the hungry queens. Her next task is to find a suitable nest - often a disused mouse burrow, lined with moss and old bedding. Then she’ll collect pollen and nectar, storing it away for her offspring. Once she has enough, she’ll lay her eggs, brooding them to keep them warm. Once the worker-bees (all female) begin to emerge, she will have some help to bring up more and more workers, and the colonies can sometimes number around four hundred by the end of the season.
As autumn approaches, the last remaining eggs laid develop into young queens and male drones, ready to mate and start the cycle again. All the members of the old colony will die before the winter arrives.
So the bee I saw today was just such a young queen, carrying all the promise of next year’s colony within her. I hope she finds somewhere safe and warm to sleep away the winter!
We’ve noticed a few plants are particularly good for the bumblebees visiting our garden here at Flatford, such as Salvia ‘Mainacht’ – we have a big patch of it in a sunny spot, and it was laden with fuzzy, buzzing bodies throughout the summer! The marjoram was also popular, as were the hyssop, catnip, Echinacea, and Hebe ‘Autumn Glory’ still flowering away now.