We cannot predict the weather that is heading our way this month but we can prepare to support any queen bumblebee that is tempted by a brief warm spell, to come out of hibernation. If she has learned that your garden has flowers, she will probably visit in the hope of finding Mahonia, Heather, Hellebore, or Honeysuckle in bloom. Ideally the flowers will provide vital nectar to boost her fat reserves, and will be in sunny positions so that she loses little body heat while foraging. The more flying that she does between blooms, the better because it is her muscles that generate heat but, this activity also uses up her energy and so she only benefits if there are several flowering plants together.
Some of the bumblebees doing a bit of last-minute foraging locally are Buff-tailed queens (Bombus terrestris). They have thick coats of fur of a rather dark colour, and they look as if the year has provided enough resources for them to grow to a good size. This is thanks to the workers in their colony. (Bees do not get bigger once they have left the nest, however much food there is once they are on the wing.) If the winter is warm they may continue to feed sporadically during the next few months.
Just like we humans, insects have illnesses to deal with and the healthier they are, the better their chances of survival. Many carry viruses, bacteria and parasites that have evolved specifically to live inside them and bumblebees have evolved antibodies and cell-mediated immunity to deal with the problems. In order to survive many months of hibernation, with their bodies in lock-down, the individuals have to be well-fed and close to supplies of nectar and pollen.
As we approach Christmas we think about buying presents for friends and family. Membership of a wildlife charity is a worthwhile gift and a way of learning how to take action to improve the environment for threatened wildlife rather than just admiring it.
These monthly articles are poor examples of the wealth of information that is available on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website. You can learn how to identify bees, which plants to grow, how the colonies are set up and cared for in a “Single mum” arrangement, how they avoid predators, and many other important facts. The information is there in an easy to access form with content suitable for children as well as adults, for gardeners, farmers and nature-lovers. There are videos, tutorials, interactive pages, articles about growing a wildflower meadow, and plenty more. When the weather is dismal this winter then you can find entertainment at www.bumblebeeconservation.org.
Adrian Doble (Bumblebee Conservation Trust) November 2020