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A bee in the bonnet: What's happening to old Bumble?

Friday 13 April 2007

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard confesses with a slight feeling of shame that, until this week, he knew very little about the life of the bumble bee or, more accurately, bumble bees (there are several different species). Then he found one in his cold frame...

FOR someone who claims to be a bit of an expert on common-or-garden wildlife - self taught over many years spent out outdoors rather than a book-fed academic - I came face to face this week with my own ignorance about one of my favourite little creatures out and about in force at this time of the year.

I CALL this the "yellow period" because many of the plants in bloom in spring are yellow: the daffs, of course, but also the forsythia, the primulas, the celandines which I reported on two weeks ago and, if you are lucky, the swathes of primroses on a remote river bank where they have not been dug up by unscrupulous gardeners.

Bumble Bee
No so busy: the bumble bee
Photo: Dave Goulson -
Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Now without wishing to offend readers of a delicate nature, these flowers are the sex organs of their species. Unable to go out in search of love, they flash themselves shamelessly in the spring sunshine in order to attract their "lovers" - and at this time of the year, the Don Juan of the great outdoors in the humble, and largely harmless, bumble bee.

For decades now I have welcomed busy old Bumble as a welcome visitor during the Yellow Period - he is one of the first symbols of approaching spring - but thought very little more about his/her lifestyle. Until, this week, when one seems to have taken up residence in my cold frame.

In the frame, I have been "hardening off" spring cabbage and calabrese seedlings for planting out. Because the weather has been so hot, I have left the lid jammed open to allow air to circulate and have been watering the young plants daily. And, every morning this week, there has been a very large bumble bee "trapped" - as I assumed - inside the frame despite the fact that there were plenty of open spaces as escape hatches.

Then, quite by coincidence, I opened the latest issue of Bird Table, the magazine of the British Trust for Ornithology, and to my delight found a four-page, full-colour article about garden bumble bees and how to recognise and record them. It was only then that I faced my deplorable ignorance of this welcome little animal.

For a start, there is not one but six different species of common bumble bee in your average garden, and at least a dozen rarer ones. The commoners are the buff-tailed, the white-tailed, the red-tailed, the common Carder, the garden and the early bumble bee. There are also six species of the rather unpleasant cuckoo bumble bee, which invade other nests and lay their eggs causing - like the bird - other parents to bring up their off- spring.

I shall be out there this weekend with my bumble bee illustrations in hand

No this is fascinating in its own right - particular so with superb full-colour illustrations - but what worried me was a piece about bumble bee nesting habits. For although some to nest underground in abandoned rabbits or mouse holes, others prefer corners low down above ground - and that sounds like a pretty good description of my cold frame.

Add to that the fact that my daily bumble bee is a very large insect and you begin to ask: if this is a queen, is she trying to set up home? And if so, what shall I do because my cold frame is a very busy place all summer: I grow miniature tomatoes and peppers in it right into the autumn.

One thing is for sure: I can't possibly kill the bee because, as the article says, some bumble species are disappearing for reasons as yet unknown. So worried are members of the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust that they are appealing for gardeners to become bumble bee watchers and recorders, to build up a data base of the comings and going of various species and discover why some are thriving and some are in steep decline.

It might sound daft - but it is well within the tradition of British amateur naturalism that compiled the huge sum of knowledge about the wildlife of these islands. I shall be out there this weekend with my bumble bee illustrations in hand, hoping that the guest in my cold frame has decided to take up superior lodgings elsewhere. Otherwise, it will be shop-bought toms for the Family Sheard this summer.

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