Some years ago, having reached the conclusion that bumble bees have a special relationship with hollyhocks, Althea rosea (snapdragons), Antirrhinums and zinnias, I have since ensured that these gorgeous flowers always play a role in my garden plans.
The sheer delight of finding, for example, a pollen-dusted bumble bee fast asleep, one leg securely hooked around the central stamen of a hollyhock flower, is a simple joy which never dims. On the odd occasion that two bumble bees, apparently holding hands, dream together … well … this pleasure is magnified into the realms of absolute magic.
These fascinating insects — there are approximately 250 species of bumble bees and they have been around for an estimated 41 to 96 million years — seemingly bumble from flower to flower, in an innocently confused manner. But, unsurprisingly, if you think about it, they know exactly what they are about. They are self-guarding their species by securing food stocks for themselves and their off-spring, whilst performing the essential task of pollination, so that their preferred food plants survive for future years too.
Bumble bees are generally fat, fuzzy and buzzy insects which tend to live in small, often underground, colonies of five to 400 bumble bees, colony size depending on the exact species involved. They are quite unlike the smaller, more complicated, honey bees that construct honeycombed hives, homing as many as 50,000 honey bees.
They don’t excavate their own underground nests, choosing to use the abandoned burrows/tunnels made by other insects: they may also nest in hollows in-between or underneath stones, holes in tree trunks/branches, in clumps of rough grass and also in the warmth of compost heaps.
Bumble bees are fascinating, intelligent and beneficial insects that are facing a catastrophic global decline
Like honeybees, bumble bees have a queen who rules them and who is maintained by worker bees, whose sole purpose in their short lives is to nurture her while she, in turn, first cares for her precious eggs and then for the larvae, once they have emerged.
However, quite unlike honey bees, whose core members often inhabit their wild or cultivated hives for years on end, a bumble bee nest is inhabited for just one season, before they move on and into a brand spanking new abode.
A south facing, rather steep and stony, well-drained, slope in my Bhurban gardens was always a bumble bee nesting haven. Over the years, I have spent countless hours watching them come and go from their earthy nooks and crannies. This slope also happened to be one of the places best suited to naturalise flowering bulbs in — flowers such as sparaxis, freesias, nargis, grape hyacinths and crocus. Bumble bees are rarely — unless you really work hard to antagonise them — aggressive. I never planted a bulb less than 12 inches away from one of their nesting holes. Respect where respect is due being an excellent gardening motto!
Bumble bees mostly go about their business in a solitary manner, collecting pollen and sipping nectar — which they sometimes actually get drunk on — seemingly ignoring the world at large. Once they have identified a clump of pollen-laded flowers, they revisit them at least twice in a day, just in case they missed something the first time around, and will continue visiting them on consecutive days until they are certain the pollen has all been harvested and safely transported back home.
They are known to learn their way around an individual garden, homing in on pre-selected plants as they go and — this is wonderful — they actually learn to identify individual humans too. A gardener can, with patience and if they dedicate enough time daily, build up a personal relationship with a bumble bee and the two can become firm friends.
These intelligent insects are, sadly and potentially catastrophically, enduring a global decline. They are being wiped out by atmospheric pollution, pesticides, by the use of chemical fertilisers, changes in cropping patterns and by loss of habitat. These northern hemisphere insects are also being adversely affected by climate change.
If you want to help to conserve this important pollinator — and in doing so help to conserve human food sources too — then here’s how to go about it.
Ban chemicals, in any shape and form, from your garden and only grow using organic methods and organic materials.
Where possible, leave at least some strips of garden, perhaps around boundary edges, untouched and unweeded, thus providing bumble bees places to nest and hide.
Make sure that shallow bowls of water, with strategically placed boulders or similar for bumble bees to land on and easily drink from without getting themselves wet, are always available. Keep these clean and change the water daily, especially during hot weather.
Plant the flowering species they particularly adore, such as hollyhocks, snapdragons, zinnias, trumpet vine, buddleia, honeysuckle, verbascum, echium, echinacea, lavender, hyssop, fragrant roses, nargis, tuberose, sweet peas, stachys, linaria, larkspur, sage, nasturtiums, limnanthes, gerbera, mints, helichrysum, chives, garlic chives, borage, bellis and any other daisy-like plants.
Encourage bumble bees, make new friends and give your garden a buzz.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, November 15th, 2020