Monday, 21 October 2013

Bumblebee queens: 'Fat bottomed girls' in need of food

By now most bumblebee colonies have died with the only survivors being this year`s queens which will be out and about looking for nectar to fill their honey stomach and to build up body fat. Bumblebee queens are quite easy to identify as they are a lot bigger than worker or male bumblebees, often double or triple the size of an average-sized worker. Queens often look quite clumsy when flying or crawling from flower to flower due to their size and are therefore easy to spot.

The mild days we have at the moment are ideal for the young queens to forage for nectar and quite a lot of plants are still flowering. If the young queens have not reached a certain weight before the onset of winter they are likely not to survive hibernation. Therefore it is really important they find enough nectar-rich flowers now.

Phacelia and Pot marigold are great for bumblebee queens
A buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris) on Phacelia
This allotment plot is full of nectar-rich late flowers

You can help young bumblebee queens by planting or sowing late flowering plants such as Michaelmas daisies (Aster spp.), Verbena bonariensis, single-flowered Dahlias (Dahlia x hybrida), Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), Small-headed sunflower (Helianthus microcephalus), Purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) and Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia). Phacelia seems to be a favourite plant of bumblebees and bumblebee queens in particular and if sown in early August it will flower in October ready for the young queens. On my allotment I have seen up to 4 queens at the same time foraging for nectar  in a small patch of flowering Phacelia. So Phacelia is well-worth planting if you have a spare patch of ground in August.

Phacelia flowering in October is a great food source for bumblebee queens
A red-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus lapidarius)
Just landed: a buff-tailed bumblebee queen
A white-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus lucorum) visiting Cosmos

Soon queens will look for hibernation places
When the days get colder the young queens will go searching for a suitable hiding place for hibernation. These hiding places are mostly underground, under tree roots and hedgerows or at the base of walls. To encourage the queens to hibernate in your garden leave some "messy" places with longer grass, piles of wood and leaves near walls and trees. On allotment sites there are often enough suitable hibernation places; under hedgerows along the boundaries, in areas with rough grass or under piles of wood or bricks.
Plant nectar-rich autumn-flowering plants and don`t be too tidy in the garden or on your allotment; it will help our "fat bottomed girls" to survive winter.

Buff-tailed bumblebee queens have dirty-yellow hair at the bottom
This red-tailed bumblebee queen got a bit wet in a shower
Even harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) are visited by queens
Two red-tailed bumblebee queens warming up in the sunshine
Shoo-fly plant (Nicandra physalodes) requires some acrobatics
Let some rocket flower to provide food for bumblebee queens
Phacelia is irresistible to bumblebees such as this buff-tailed queen
Red-tailed bumblebee queens have a bright orange-red bottom

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