Wild bees are spring marker

A buff-tailed bumblebee queen, collecting nectar
A buff-tailed bumblebee queen, collecting nectar

Written by Heather Elvidge

The sudden change to milder, sunny days has brought out the buff-tailed bumblebees at last. These are queens, foraging for nectar among daffodils and golden sallow catkins.

It’s always good to see them, transferring pollen from flower to flower. As the first wild bees to emerge from hibernation, they’re a marker of the progress of spring.

But they’re not the most graceful of fliers. These buff-tailed bumblers often crash into windows, though it doesn’t seem to harm them — they simply bounce off.

Soon each queen will be checking old walls and hedge bottoms to find a nest site, where she will lay her eggs and care for a new generation. During the summer her little colony will expand, finally producing the new queens that will emerge in spring 2014.

While they’re busy collecting food, bumblebees and other wild bees are also working for us. They set the flowers on a wide range of food crops from beans to fruit trees; without them pollination would be difficult and expensive. The task would have to be done by hand, using soft brushes.

On the plus side, thousands of people would have a job.

But think of a row of apple trees in bloom, or a field of oilseed rape, and imagine having to gently sweep every flower with a feather brush. Is this a job you’d like to do? And how would it affect the price we pay for food?

If you’re thinking this couldn’t happen — it already has, in Sichuan, China.

In the UK, most bee species are in a state of decline with disease, weather, and habitat loss all playing their part. Why add to the pressure by harming them with insecticides? There’s growing pressure for a ban on neonicotinoids, the group of pesticides brought in to replace DDT. Soon there’ll be a vote on a ban in Europe.

Whatever the outcome, gardeners here could do their bit by stopping the use of neonicotinoids. We’ve made our gardens into havens for wild birds — let’s do the same for bees, butterflies and moths.

Garden treats

Many tasks were put off during the cold weather — now buds are bursting and plants sprouting, gardeners have a lot of catching up to do.

Soil that’s been waterlogged, frozen and parched definitely needs a treat, and a top dressing of compost is just the thing. In the old days, that meant compost from your own heap. As well as leaves and clippings it could include waste fish, bones, offal, and horse manure scraped off the road.

Nothing was wasted, as a popular 1920s manual stated: “Human manure from the earth closet is especially good for onions, leeks, and potatoes … apply in the spring at one hundredweight per square yard.”

It’s not as bad as it sounds, because the residue from a well-managed earth closet was already composted. But all the same, we’ll probably give that one a miss.

While we’re thinking what to plant, we could help wild bees by making some room for their favourites. Bees like simple flowers such as geraniums, potentilla, ox-eye daisies, feverfew, poppies, borage, toadflax and foxgloves. Bee-utiful.