Bumblebees have fascinated me since I was a child, and I’ve been studying them for 30 years now as a professor of biology. They’re big, hairy, and beautiful, and their buzzing, lazy flight is the perfect soundtrack to a summer’s day.
There are 26 species in the UK and it’s easy to spot six or seven in your garden or park, provided there are flowers to attract them. You can see huge queens in early spring, followed by their smaller workers, and then males with their fluffy yellow faces hanging out on flowers in the summer.
Bumblebees are the most obvious visitors – they are large and many have yellow stripes. Honeybees are also common – these slender, brownish bees are kept in hives. There are also leaf cut bees, sweat bees and a whole lot more – around 270 species in the UK.
Bumblebees are excellent pollinators, ensuring that wildflowers appear every year and our food crops are plentiful, so we need to provide them with a haven in which to thrive. In my new book, I’ll show you how any garden can become a haven for bumblebees – even a grow bag on a balcony can produce lots of irresistible blooms …
In his new book, Dave Goulson has shown how any garden can become a haven for bumblebees, ensuring that wildflowers appear every year and that our food crops are abundant.
THE PLANTS CANNOT RESIST BEES
These wildflowers, plants and trees, at least in my garden, are magnets for pollinators …
February to April
- Willow The yellow catkins are one of the best sources of pollen and nectar for queen bumblebees in early spring. A number of early solitary bees, especially mining bees, are also highly dependent.
- Lungwort A great nectar source for hungry queens and can attract the hairy flower bee.
A comfrey has a long flowering period that peaks in late May and June but lasts until October and is visited by both long and short tongue bees
- Comfrey (below) Has a long flowering period that peaks in late May and June but lasts until October. It is frequented by both long and short-tongued bees.
- Laburnum The glorious cascades of hanging pea-type yellow flowers are mainly visited by bumblebees, especially redstarts, which have a strong preference for yellow flowers.
- Geranium (right) Go for the purple flowers of the beautiful native crane (G. talkse). Don’t confuse them with their showy South African relatives pelargoniums, which are of little value to insects.
- Foxglove A favorite with long-tongued bumblebees, such as the garden bumblebee. Some cultivated varieties produce little nectar, so it is safest to stick to the wild purple variety.
- Erysimum The perennial wallflower ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ can bloom most of the year, but is most productive in the spring when it attracts butterflies, solitary bees and short-tongued bumblebees.
- Vetch If you live in the southern half of the UK and grow this plant you may be in luck and also attract Britain’s tiniest butterfly, the beautiful little blue.
Other flowers you can add to your garden to attract bumblebees include the viperwort (left) and chives (right)
- Buddleia Hated by some as an invasive weed, the tapered flower heads in purple, mauve or white are a popular nectar source for butterflies, bumblebees and moths.
- Field scabious A beautiful native perennial that bees, butterflies and hoverflies love. Goldfinches enjoy the seeds in the winter.
- Phacelia Spectacularly attractive to short-tongued bees and hoverflies, this one has clusters of purple flowers that produce an abundance of nectar and purple pollen.
- Marjoram A great all-rounder, very easy to grow, attractive to tons of pollinators – and also a good herb to cook with.
- Viper’s bugloss Thrives on the gravel of Dungeness and along the tank tracks on Salisbury Plain, making these two places some of the best sites for bumblebees in Britain.
- Catmint If I could only grow one flower in my garden I think this would be it. The gently sprawling, soft blue flowers attract many bumblebees.
- Lavender A must for every garden. Dutch lavender, Lavandula x intermedia, is the best variety for bee visits.
- Alliums Most large alliums are popular with both bumblebees and solitary bees. Less flamboyant alliums are worth growing – chives are a favorite with early bumblebees and leek flower heads are very popular with bumblebees, solitary bees and butterflies.
- Blackberry A thug in the garden, but this plant is a favorite with insects.
Foxglove and lavender are also good plants to add to your garden to display the bees (photo: stock photo of a garden of roses, lavender and foxglove among other plants)
- Devilish scabies The purple, nectar-rich flowers are loved by the last few bumblebees of the year.
- Ice plant Series of small, plate-sized pink flowers are attractive to butterflies before hibernating. ‘Autumn Joy’ also attracts bees.
- Ivy The greenish-yellow flower clusters attract butterflies such as the peacock and admiral, as well as honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies, wasps and beetles.
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A BUMBLE
When the sun shows its face at the end of February, the first bumblebees emerge from hibernation. They are starving because they have been living off their fat reserves for six or even eight months. The few flowers in the area are vital: winter heather, crocus and hellebore can be harassed by voracious queen bees.
The first queens to emerge are usually buff-tailed bumblebees or white-tailed bumblebees, but in March they are joined by all other common bumblebees: early bumblebees, common bumblebees, red-tailed bumblebees, garden bumblebees and tree bumblebees.
The first bumblebees come out of hibernation at the end of February when it is sunny (photo: red-tailed deer likes yellow flowers)
The queens then search for a nest, flying low and back and forth, looking for holes in the ground. When they find one, they crawl in to investigate, hoping to find a dry, dark room with an old mouse’s nest inside.
They sit down and each queen collects a ball of pollen and puts a batch of eggs in it, which she covers with wax. She hatches them like a bird would, and the eggs should hatch into tiny white larvae. She repeatedly runs outside to gather food for herself and herself.
Bees deviate from a flower when they detect the smelly hydrocarbon ‘footprint’ of a recent bee visitor who has taken nectar.
Since bees visit 10,000 flowers a day, the seconds saved add up.
It’s a precarious time; if there aren’t enough flowers around, her nest is likely to fail. The queens who succeed are rewarded, about a month after laying their first batch of eggs, with their first adult workers – daughters.
These take over foraging and the queen continues to lay eggs in her nest for the rest of her life. The nest grows through the spring and gathers more and more workers – a buff-tail bumblebee nest can have 400.
Eventually, the queen stops producing workers and switches to making new queens and males. Most varieties do this in July or August. The young males and queens fly from the nest and mate, most queens mate only once with a single male.
A few days later, the young queens burrow into the ground to wait, alone, until the following spring. For the males, mating is their only goal – they don’t do any work for the nest. The old queen dies maybe thirteen months after she was born. The workers also die one by one.
By October, the last nests are nearly gone, but if all went well, each will leave a legacy of young queens, safely underground, waiting for spring.
Dave recommends including cornflower in the photo), red campion, meadow clary, musk mallow, ox-eye daisy, self-healing, poppy, foxglove, bird’s-foot clover, and vipers bugloss in a grow bag
HOW TO MAKE A GROWBAG MEADOW
Few of us are lucky enough to have rolling acres, but don’t despair. Buy a grow bag or fill a large container or tray with peat-free compost. Sow a wildflower seed mix in April or May.
I would add one of the following: red campion, meadow scarlet, musk mallow, ox-eye daisy, self-healing, poppy, foxglove, cloverleaf knot, viper and cornflower (right). Avoid pasture grasses, they can take over.
Make sure your grow bag or container gets at least a little sun, water it regularly, and you have a colorful display that will attract an array of insects.
Gardening for bumblebees by Dave Goulson, Square Peg, £ 16.99. © Dave Goulson 2021. To get a copy to 020 3308 9193 for £ 14.95 or see mailshop.co.uk/books. Free UK delivery on orders over £ 20. Offer valid until 05/14/21.