A buzz in the garden

Our volunteer David Merry's garden has been positively buzzing with bumblebee visitors! Find out who has paid a visit this year.

I first noticed the tree bumblebee nest when I saw four to six bees hovering outside its entrance, a behaviour known as ‘nest surveillance’. In the recent sunny weather this behaviour went on all day, only stopping during a cold snap or rain.

Nest surveillance is carried out by hopeful male bees waiting for their chance to mate with new, virgin queens appearing outside the nest. Sometimes they will go to the ground in the process of mating, and in the photo below a new queen was alone on the patio.

A tree bumblebee queen on our volunteer's patio

Tree bumblebee by David Merry

A new queen will need to quickly build up her strength ready for hibernation. In the following spring she will start a new colony.

Having a nest of bees in the eaves of our house is a wonderful complement to the garden. At the back of our property are thick brambles, wildflowers and an apple tree. Tree bumblebees love fruity blooms of all kinds along with easily accessible open flowers. Since the arrival of these bees I’ve noticed an increase in bee activity in all parts of the garden.

The tree bumblebee is a non-native species and can be seen between March and July, and a nest can be active for up to four months depending on weather conditions.

Buff-tailed bumblebee flying to feed on garden flowers

Buff-tailed bumblebee by Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Other buzzing visitors I’ve photographed in my garden are buff-tailed bumblebees and early bumblebees.

The honeybee is part of the Apidae family domesticated by man. Today, along with honeybees in Britain there are more than 250 species of wild bees.

The buff-tailed bumblebee can be found in any number of habitats, both rural or urban, and can be seen buzzing about between March right up to November.

A male early bumblebee feeding from flowers in our volunteer's garden

Male early bumblebee by David Merry

The early bumblebee is such a small bee, and a species I’d not noticed before. It has a very short lifespan of only 14 weeks and can be seen on the wing from early spring to May. It lives underground in colonies from 50 – 100 bees. Like the other bumblebees in my garden, it lives within an organised society of queens and workers.

I feel lucky to have three species of bumblebee in my urban garden. Since taking the photographs, the early bumblebees have disappeared. In the late  20th century bumblebees experienced huge declines and two species are now extinct: Cullum's bumblebee and the apple bumblebee. A number of the commonest species like early bumblebees have been in decline since 2011, and like the ‘canary in the mine’ are warning us to take action before it’s too late!   

But what can I do to make a difference in my small urban patio garden? Bees need water just as much as birds and mammals in hot weather. The trick is to provide water without a risk of drowning. Try a dish of water filled with pebbles, not just for bees but for young birds too. 

And plant bee-friendly flowers like foxgloves and honeysuckle, which are firm favourites with bees, and I might try comfrey in the small side garden. Even if you only have a window box or a few patio pots, there is a wide choice of pollen-rich flowers for spring, summer, autumn and winter. 

Providing the sustenance of a bee-friendly garden is a delight, and always gives me a real buzz

More bee-friendly tips