Bumblebees evolved in the Himalayas, with a heat-conserving shape, a thick fur coat, and a way to raise their body temperature in cold weather so that they can forage while pollinators less well adapted are in no condition to compete for food. Each species lives in harmony with a plant that flourishes in the same part of the world. One of the reasons why many insect species are in decline is that the plants that they rely on cannot survive the recent hot Summers. Bees on the other hand can fly North to cooler, wetter areas to find supplies of pollen and nectar.
This month’s bumblebee is the Great Yellow (Bombus distinguendus). It used to be widespread across the UK but is now severely restricted to remote coastal regions of Scotland and Ireland. Although it feeds on many of the same plants as other bumbles, it has had to move further and further North to avoid the competition from the commoner pollinators. Whereas the bumbles that we see in our gardens will have families of a few hundred, the Great Yellow nests may only contain up to a score of workers. This makes their chances of survival and reproduction very precarious.
Any queen bumblebee that you see this month will either be in part of your house or crawling about in your garden. She will be groggy but not ill, having been woken up by domestic warmth or a sudden spell of warm weather. You can help her by offering her a few drops of water containing grains of sugar, on a teaspoon or on the end of a matchstick. Let her remain in the room where you found her so that she can return to her niche. If she is outside, place her in a sheltered dry place where she will not be eaten by a blue tit, a mouse or a spider. A flower pot of dry compost is another possibility, putting her an inch below the surface.
On a warm day last week there were bumblebees on the Hellebores in the garden centres. Mahonia, Heather, Cyclamen and Daphne odora are full of food for restless bees and can justify a place in any wildlife –friendly garden. During these dark days we are looking forward to the sight of Snowdrop, Daffodil, Crocus, Hyacinth, Primrose and all the flowers that tell us that Spring is here and life is worth living, but these plants may be real life savers for pollinators.