In early spring, when out and about in your garden, look out for these fluffy flying golf balls, whizzing around the garden searching for nectar and pollen. They are loud and large and pretty unmistakable and start to emerge in February. These are the queens of this beautiful bumblebee and they are some of the largest bumblebees you will see in your garden. The Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) is a common, widespread garden species and can even be present in some more southerly gardens all year round, even in winter, due to winter active second colonies. The large queens emerge from their winter cavity early in February in favourable conditions and will feed on a wide variety of garden plants. It’s pretty much only the queens that have the buffish beige tail tip; the workers and the males of this species have white bottoms which makes them difficult to distinguish from the White-tailed bumblebees. Even the experts struggle. The Buff-tailed bumblebee has a short tongue but this doesn’t restrict it to feeding on just open accessible and short corolla flowers, because it has learnt to rob long tubular flowers by chewing holes above the nectary on the flowers.
This bee nests in old vole and mouse holes, usually underground (hence its scientific name terrestris – meaning of the earth/land) and is also known to make nests under garden sheds and in compost heaps/bins. The nests are among the largest of the bumblebees and at their peak may contain 400 bees.
How to spot
The workers of this bee can be difficult to distinguish from the White-tailed bumblebee.
It is the queens that are the easiest to identify as they have a buffish beige tail and orangey yellow bands on the thorax. You can spot these bees feeding on your garden flowers, especially those with short flowers or very open, accessible flowers where the bees can reach the nectar and pollen easily.
The queens have a lot of work to do to provision the nest and feed the very first brood, so they tend to forage fairly close to their nests. Winter active bumblebees are often the Buff-tailed bumblebee; this species can be found nesting from autumn until spring and will appreciate winter flowering trees and shrubs in the garden.
Cuckoo bee – The Buff-tailed bumblebee is a host for the similar looking Southern cuckoo bee (Bombus vestalis).
How to help
- Grow lots of flowers in your garden that have accessible pollen and nectar. Especially early flowering plants that are a bee lifesaver in late winter and early spring, such as heathers and mahonia. Remember that the queens of this species are big and quite heavy so they need strong-stemmed flowers with easy access nectar and pollen, or landing pads where they can descend and feed safely on flowers that will support their
- weight, such as scabious, lavender, roses and marigolds or cushion plants such as thyme.
- Plant a bee shrub or tree or two that will establish in time to bear hundreds of flowers in one small area; a willow tree or an open flowered cherry is a good choice.
- Grow a wide variety of plants and flowers to give your wild bees a decent choice of forage plants. Let the dandelions and thistles flower. Any flowers with a flat, central disc, such as daisies, cosmos, and coneflowers are ideal as they offer a landing pad for the bees, while the central disc is actually made up of dozens of tiny floral tubes that the bees can easily feed from.
- Don’t spray your garden or your plants with pesticides of any sort. Anything designed to kill insects will also kill bees, even organic pest controls. Remove pests by hand where possible and if necessary. For an aphid attack wash plants with a jet of water that blasts the aphids to the ground for the ground feeding birds to eat.
- Encourage wildlife into the garden as natural pest control.
- Keep a watch out for bumblebee nests in your garden and if there’s one present protect it so that pets, children and other garden visitors don’t interfere with it.