A Buzz In The Borders


It has been a long wait this year, but at last, I’ve heard the sound that for me marks the beginning of spring: that unmistakable buzz of a large, fuzzy bumblebee.

I don’t need to see her. From the sound alone I can tell she’s a queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). And then I spot her. She buzzes and bumbles over the lawn in a low, zig-zagging flight. The search for a nesting place has begun.

Bumblebee queens emerge from hibernation in the spring, hungry, and in desperate need of pollen and nectar to replenish their dwindling energy reserves. My first sighting is no exception. She leaves her zig-zagging and makes a bee-line to the patch of hellebores at the back of the garden. Soon she has disappeared into one of the wide speckled blooms.


Over the coming weeks she will spend her time re-fuel and investigate potential places to build her nest, burrowing into old mouse holes, or the compost heap; crawling under the shed and into piles of leaves. It’s certainly no coincidence that last year a buff-tailed bumblebee colony was established close to the hellebore patch: bumblebee queens often to choose to nest where there is a plentiful source of food nearby to help produce their first batch of eggs.

Elsewhere in the garden, spring bulbs and blossom, lungwort, fritillaries, and primroses all offer early garden forage for bumbles while cheering up the beds and borders through these earliest months of the year. We leave clusters of violets and celandines that have seeded themselves around the garden from the woods beyond, and plant our own choices in clumps and drifts. Planting in this way provides plenty of forage in each place, helping the bees to conserve their energy by reducing the need to fly too far between plants.

Soon other kinds of bumblebee will begin to emerge, and we will welcome the first solitary bees too. The gentle Andrena carantonica that appear each year in the upstairs bedrooms; tawny mining bees (Andrena fulva) who make volcano-shaped nest entrances in the borders; ashy mining bees (Andrena cineraria) with their characteristic grey moustaches; the red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) that like to sun themselves on the south and west facing walls of the house; and the hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) that zip at speed from flower to flower among the comfrey plants.


But for now, I am content to listen out for that deep buzz of the big bumblebee queens, hoping to spot more before they enter the confinement of their nests for the rest of the year.


SpringHelen Duncan