What are the large bumblebees that we see foraging on our flowers with such enthusiasm this month? They look like the ones that have been around all summer, but are they? Probably not. It is much more likely that they are newly emerged queens who have successfully mated and are now filling their fat stores with pollen and nectar in preparation for the winter hibernation. Bumblebees do not live in hives but rely on their rotund shape, their fur, and on finding a secure niche to hide in, to ensure that they will be alive to appear next year.
One of the results of warmer winters is that bumbles do not hibernate for as long as they used to, but the snag is that the flowers that they relied on have not yet developed the ability to bloom for extended periods. In the wild, this leaves pollinators without food while they are still active. Studies show that perennial flowers do not bloom until June and annuals do so a month later. Most wildflowers finish blooming in October. This is why gardens are so much more important for the survival of pollinators than the rural countryside. As gardeners we should aim to have blooms available for 12 months of the year by planting a range of species including all sorts from bulbs and corms, through annuals and perennials, to shrubs and trees. The website of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has loads of helpful ideas when it comes to choosing which plants to grow.
Pollen and nectar are the building blocks of bees and where there are no flowers there will be no bees. It is generally known that many species of wild bees in the UK are heading for extinction and one common reaction is to set up more beehives. In fact, this is a mistake because honeybees compete directly with wild bees and the Beekeepers associations are now discouraging their members from adding more hives. A bumblebee colony may contain up to 600 individuals whereas a hive may contain 100,000. The odds are very uneven.
Useful plants that bloom in the cold months include winter species of Honeysuckle, Heather and Clematis, as well as White dead nettle, Comfrey, Wild daffodil, Prunus, Abelia, Mahonia, Pulmonaria, Crocus, Helebore, Green alkanet and Pussy willow. Only plant simple open-flowered varieties because bumblebees cannot reach the nectar in double ones. A drift of a single variety will make life easier for foraging bees than a selection of many varieties. If you have the option to put plants in sunny positions, this will be better for bees in the winter because they lose less heat while collecting from a bloom. It is their flight muscles that provide their warmth. Now is a good time to plan for an even more pollinator-friendly garden for next year.
Adrian Doble (Bumblebee Conservation Trust) August 2021