Sound of the flight of the bumblebee

Humming is good for you. There is something wonderfully calming and reassuring about it. It can help you get to sleep when insomnia strikes, soothes the spasms of indigestion from eating on the hoof and reduces stress. Bees do it all the time, though in fact their humming is a by-product of their flying technique rather than a deliberate vocal effort. It was in a rare moment of early summer bliss on Monday, dozing, jacketless on the seat outside our front door, cat in lap, that a bumblebee’s buzzing woke me up.

I watched through half shut eyes as the big, furry fellow bumbled about the courtyard, swinging at times, as if suspended from a long string, from side to side, no doubt surveying our emerging spring blooms. He, or maybe she, was a white-tailed bumble bee and I recalled seeing a big bee back in mid-March, just before we headed south for Mum’s 90th birthday (don’t tell her I told you; she refuses to play the numbers game when it comes to age; she says that “saying it makes you feel and become it”).

I remembered the Shetland Biological Records project and telephoned Paul Harvey with news of the bee and was delighted to find out that my sleepy humming alarm clock turned out to be the first recorded white-tailed bumble bee for 2009. Further investigation however revealed that earlier records had been sent in from previous years. If only I had had the sense to telephone that March sighting; a whole month earlier!

The earliest record I was given for the 21st century was one from 2003. A white-tailed bumblebee was seen on the 18th of February at the Knowes, Ollaberry. In 2002 there was a recorded sighting from Tresta on the 30th of March and another on exactly the same day from Sandgarth in Voe. A day and two years later Terry Rogers recorded one on the 31st of March in 2004. There are lots more records with Paul, but these are the earliest so far. Next year, if I remember to keep an eye out, I will hope to be better prepared.

It won’t be long now before there is a whole lot more for bumblebees to bumble around in. Flowers are entering the great spring flowering surge, both in gardens and in the wild. I intend to try to watch to see which of our old spring favourites are most frequently visited by the bees. Primroses are a favourite, but there will soon be tulips, Scylla, grape hyacinths and loads more.

In the past, it wasn’t a flower at all but a tree which attracted the most bees. Willow catkins on one of our willow species grow fatter and more golden than any of the others. In full sun one day there were literally too many bumblebees to count. The whole tree was humming. A little friend was so spooked by the phenomenon that he refused to walk past it. The noise had reached quite a menacing volume and I think that he feared that it would explode at any minute. But what kinds of bees were they?

Shetland dialect names for bees varied from place to place, but I have heard “buzzy bees”, “drummy bees”, and a few others over the years. I will just have to add “bee homework” to my job list and get another copy of the bumblebee record leaflet from the Shetland Biological Database office at Shetland Amenity Trust in Lerwick. It can be a very confusing subject at first glance.

Early in the year, only queen bees are seen. The smaller workers do not survive the winter. Her majesty crawls out of hibernation when the conditions are favourable and bumbles up into the air, seeking sustenance. Once she has had an energy boost, she sets about nest building and lays the first eggs of the year, all of which will hatch out as sexless workers. They are always smaller. Once they have completed their tasks and a well-stocked and constructed nest is ready, the queen will then lay eggs for hatching clearly sexed bees; males and queens. These will be able to branch out and create new colonies.

It is impossible to say how to identify wild bumblebees in any easy way, but a few pointers can help. Big, fat, furry ones with white tails, seen at this time of year are almost certainly Northern white-tailed (or Bombus magnus) bumblebee queens. A similarly big, fat, gingery tailed one, with no white on it at all, is probably a “Shetland” bumblebee, Bombus muscorum queen. These are the ones to get excited about, as they are far scarcer and possibly in danger of disappearing.

There are two more, Bombus jonellus, sometimes called the heath bumblebee and Bombus hortorum, the garden bumblebee. Both of these are much smaller than the big queens above, but inevitably get confused with the smaller workers of the first two species. They both have tawny “bums” as one entomologist explained to me, but the colour is a richer, yellower tone with hortorum. Another way you can tell them apart is by getting a clear, close up view of their faces. Bombus hortorum has a long face. The heath bumbebee face is much rounder.

English Nature brought out a bumblebee conservation leaflet some years ago, which gives practical advice for anyone wishing to encourage these wonderfully hummy insects to thrive and multiply in their area. It advises small wild areas to be left to become overgrown for a few years. Hedge bottoms in particular can be allowed to build up a thickness of ground cover, which will provide suitable nesting sites.

The leaflet explains how bumblebees are able to carry out plant pollination at lower temperatures and in poorer weather than honey bees. They have a vital role, therefore, in agriculture and in human food production. Recent diseases affecting honey bees have been much in the news and bumblebees too are in serious decline. A number of plants are suggested as being well worth planting, to provide more fodder for them.

Among others, white dead nettle is encouraged as bees thrive on the nectar produced by their easy bee-feeding shaped flowers. Other dead nettles are also good for bees. In Shetland, clovers are success stories for bees. After several years of trying to get seeds, I finally walked into a building construction company office one day asking if I could please dig up some red clover plants from their newly surfaced entrance verge. After some understandable surprise, I was given the green light.

I went home with several dozen small plants, but left several hundred more behind. I now have a thriving population of them and they are every bit as gorgeous as “garden” flowers in the summer. I might even have a few spares, if you’re interested.

Jill Slee Blackadder


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