Growing spring flowers for bumblebees

Posted: Friday 25 October 2013
by Kate Bradbury

I spent yesterday afternoon planting bulbs for queen bumblebees. I planted Allium roseum, crocus, snake’s head fritillary and a mixed selection of Anemone blanda.

I spent yesterday afternoon planting bulbs for queen bumblebees. I planted Allium roseum, crocus, snake’s head fritillary and a mixed selection of Anemone blanda. I also conducted a little inventory of other spring-flowering plants for bees in my garden: hellebore, primrose, winter aconite, bluebell, grape hyacinth and lungwort. Now all I need to do is wait until spring, for the bees to wake up.

Bumblebees have a hard time in autumn in winter. Freshly mated, the daughter queens fatten up on nectar and find somewhere to hibernate. Many dig themselves into the ground, or into compost heaps, pots of plants or beneath leaf litter. They can do this as early as August, and might not emerge until the following May.

One summer I watched a red-tailed bumblebee, Bombus lapidarius, dig herself into the ground and disappear. Another time I saw a white-tailed bumblebee, Bombus hortorum, sneak into a crack in my mum’s compost bin. It was February, so I wonder if she’d popped out to see if anything was in flower and then gone back to her winter digs for another few weeks.

Many bumblebees don’t survive winter. If it’s too wet they might be flooded in their underground chambers, or frozen to death during a prolonged icy spell. Some presumably succumb to fungal infections and parasites. Others starve, perhaps having not eaten enough before entering hibernation, while a few fall at the last hurdle, unable to find enough food when they emerge in spring.

Those that do make it are pretty amazing. After gorging themselves on nectar and a bit of pollen, they find a suitable site to start a new nest. Large buff-tailed queens may be seen zig-zagging low over the ground, looking for a mouse hole or similar to investigate (there’s a wonderful video here of a buff-tailed queen investigating a dead mouse, as it presumably smells the same as an old mouse hole). They don’t gather their own nesting material, so the former home of another animal, with material already gathered for them, is ideal.

The pollen they eat is full of protein, which helps them expand their shrivelled ovaries and develop their eggs. Once a nest site has been found, each queen then makes a little wax pot and fills it with nectar, and gathers a bit of pollen, which she squeezes into a ball. She lays eggs, fertilising them as they are laid with sperm stored from the previous summer. She incubates her eggs like a bird, and keeps her energy levels up by drinking from her little pot of nectar.

According to Dave Goulson, author of A Sting in the Tale, “A queen may use her own weight in sugar each day to incubate her brood, which may necessitate visiting up to 6000 flowers. If these flowers are too few and far between she will be away from the nest for much of the day, her brood will cool and as a result develop slowly, and she will wear herself out in her frantic search for food.”

I don’t want the bees of Hackney wearing themselves out in a frantic search for food. So I’ll keep adding to my ‘collection’ of spring-flowering plants each year, and hope they’ll be plenty of pollen and nectar in mine, and neighbouring gardens, for them to nest successfully. Maybe 2014 will be the year when a queen bumblebee finally takes a chance, and makes her nest in my garden.

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higgy50 31/10/2013 at 17:45

This is a really interesting post Kate and timely as I spent most of the day last Saturday planting my Crocus, Snakes Head Fritillary, allium and anemone bulbs also! I didn't managed to get all the bulbs planted as my planting required lifting sections of lawn to try and get about 300 bulbs under it!!
I plant purely for pollinators and other wildlife and have a terrific array of Summer and Autumn flowering plants but very little in Spring. It is because of this that I have been thinking for some time that I must get more Spring flowers in the garden for early pollinators.

Despite my best efforts on Saturday I still have a lot of bulbs left to plant including a few others worth considering for early pollinators such as...
Ornithoqalum umbellatum, Anemone Coronaria, Anemone SR MR FOKKER, Crocus chry Gypsy Girl and Crocus chry Snow Bunting.

A more unusual Spring bulb but excellent if you have heavy wet ground is CAMASSIA, which I've had quite good success with early Bumblebees visiting them. I only had a few in the garden so have planted another 50 or so of three different varieties to see if any are better than the others...

Best regards


Woodgreen wonderboy 31/10/2013 at 20:01

You can grow camassia in grass ( Christo LLoyds garden at Great Dixter has them in the grass leading to the front door of his house), or in pots, which is what I do, to make sure I don't accidentally plant over them, or dig them up  

Woodgreen wonderboy 31/10/2013 at 20:20

A recent piece of research at Sussex univ. has shown that majoram is the very best plant for nectar for insects, followed by lavendar. You could grow some in pots in the GH to bring it on early enough for the queens?

nutcutlet 31/10/2013 at 20:33

Grow Pulmonaria rubra and allow the annual red dead-nettle to seed. They're both ready and waiting for the early bees.

flowersforbees 31/10/2013 at 21:28

Is Pulmonaria rubra a wildflower Nutcutlet?  Sorry, I don't yet know any of

the latin names for flowers!  Also I've been told that oxeye daisies and poppies

thrive a lot better if they have some tall wild grasses to support them - does

anyone know the name of tall grasses that would compliment both these

flowers, but wouldn't take over too much and restrict their growth?

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