Early spring marks the turning of the year, and is one of the most crucial times in the life of our bumblebees, as Katy Malone, a Conservation Officer with Bumblebee Conservation Trust in Scotland, explains.
Queen bumbles have been hibernating all winter, slowly using up their fat reserves. They are the only ones who survive the winter, and the next generation must begin with them. They finally emerge into the fresh sunshine very, very hungry. They depend on early nectar and pollen to feed up and regain condition quickly to be successful in starting a nest. So, if you want to attract these regal visitors to your garden, here are a few of their favourite spring plants.
Yes, okay, I know many of you will be thinking I’m off my rocker here… but bear with me. Have you noticed that the first bumblebees start to appear as soon as the dandelions are out? Researchers have shown that many bumblebee species time their emergence from hibernation with the first flowering of certain spring flowers, and I’ve noticed dandelions seem to be one of those (pussy willow is another).
If you have dandelions in your lawn, please try not to mow them until they have finished flowering. I bet you’ll be rewarded for giving them a stay of execution with the first sightings of bees in your garden. If you want to go a step further, you can email your local council, asking them not to spray herbicides on those weedy corners until the dandelions have finished flowering.
Here’s a serious heavyweight in the spring pollen and nectar stakes. Very hardy, needing no special care, with different varieties producing clusters of pink, red or white flowers from early April (perhaps earlier in the south), it flowers at just the right time to allow a range of bumblebee species to forage in the spring. The rest of the year, it’s quite unobtrusive and well behaved. The spring is its time to shine – I would not be without it in my garden.
I love lungwort, but I don’t love the name. It might be an ugly name, but just like our own lungs, it unobtrusively helps breathe life into the spring garden. The clusters of pinky-purple flowers glow with UV light, a spectrum which we can’t see but bumblebees can, and it attracts them to feed. It’s a low-growing ground cover plant which can even grow in those shady problem corners in your garden.
Erica carnea is also known as alpine heath. It’s related to the UK native heathers which flower in the late summer (Calluna vulgaris/Erica tetralix/E. cinerea). They are compact, free-flowering shrubs which thrive in acidic soils. In the spring they can be almost smothered with nectar-rich flowers. Bees go absolutely mad for them. Find a peat-free ericaceous compost and plant up a few (or a lot) in a large container – you’ll see what I mean.
There are so many more I don’t have room to mention (like the spring bulbs, viburnum, primroses, species hellebores…) but these are just a few that always make the shortlist for me. Have a look at our Beekind webtool for some more ideas, and to find out how bee-friendly your garden is.
I would love to see your photos and see what queen bumblebees are feeding on in your garden at this time of year. Did you agree with my favourites?
If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you might like to head over to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website for more about gardening for bees. You can also find out about our projects all over the UK, or volunteering for us, or support us by becoming a member of the BBCT. We’ll be back in the summer with more on what to plant for bees for the warmer months.
You can read Scotland’s Pollinator Strategy on the SNH website.