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How are bumblebees coping with the cold UK Spring?

By now, we would normally expect to see many more bumblebee queens on the wing, searching for nests and trying to gather enough food to raise their first few workers for the nest. But in most of the UK, the cold weather this Spring has meant that many queens simply haven’t left hibernation yet - I have only seen two myself this year, and early indications from our BeeWalk survey shows that almost no queens were spotted at all in March.

So is this a disaster? I don’t think so. The best place for bumblebee queens to have been during the cold spell is safely underground, still in hibernation. If we had had a nice, warm start to spring, we would have seen lots of bees leaving hibernation in March. If the warm spell had been followed by bad weather, those bumblebees would have been left entirely exposed to the elements until they had found their nests. And even when they had found nests, they would have struggled to find food for themselves and their young.

This is just what happened last year. March 2012 saw temperatures soar to record temperatures, with warnings that the UK was facing a drought. What followed was a terrible return to wet conditions, with April 2012 being the wettest in over 100 years. So I think that in the grand scheme of things, this year’s delayed spring isn’t such a bad thing. Those hardy queens will just have to hang on for a few weeks longer than normal. The question is: can we? At BBCT, we’ve all been desperate to spot the first queens, but I feel happier in the knowledge that most queens are still underground, oblivious to the ups and downs of the British ‘springtime’.

So to make things a bit better for queens when they do emerge, my recommendations for spring flowering garden plants are:

Spring flowering heather
Muscari
Willow
Pieris
Flowering currant / Ribes
Bugle
Broom
Lungwort / Pulmonaria
Fruit trees such as cherry, apple, pear and plum
Berberis
Camellia
Dicentra
Skimmia

With all of these, check the variety at the garden centre to make sure that it flowers at a time when bees are actually active (for example, some varieties of camellia flower in November and December, when bees aren’t active in most of the country). To find out what other plants are good for bees, visit the Bee kind section of our website by clicking here.

Lungwort - one of my favourite springtime plants for bees

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