The first bumblebees we see in late winter and early spring are the overwintered Queen bees setting up a nest
Look out for the huge Queen bees emerging in February and March. These are usually the buff and white tailed bumblebee queens, but the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) is also an early emerger.
Take a look around the garden and see what’s in flower. If there are Queen bees on the wing, it’s often a matter of zoning into the loud buzz where they are feeding. Crocus, snowdrops, hellebores and winter flowering trees and shrubs are magnets for these creatures.
Queen bees truly are busy bees. Already mated before they overwinter, they are getting ready to raise a family. First they must find food. Nectar to sustain their activity and pollen to ripen the eggs in their ovaries.
Then they need to find a suitable place to make a nest. And all of that assumes that the weather stays conducive to foraging and nest site searching.
If you see a large bumblebee zig-zagging over the ground, a few inches above soil level that’s your Queen bee house hunting. She’s looking for a suitable place to make a nest. Maybe an old rodent hole, or a space between knarled roots or within a wall.
It’s exhausting work and once she has found the right place there’s even more to do. She needs to make a wax pot from scales that she secretes from her body. She forms this into Winnie the Pooh shaped honey pot and then stores nectar inside to sustain her not just on wet rainy days when she can’t forage, but also for when she is brooding her eggs.
Next she collects lots of pollen. Look out for large bumblebees on willow catkins, where they harvest the pollen. It’s protein rich and the perfect food for her developing babes.
Then she makes a fat pea sized ball of pollen wetted with nectar. She makes an indent in the top and lays her first batch of eggs in the top.
One of the most amazing things about bumblebees is that they are able to disconnect their wing muscles and then vibrate the muscles to raise their body temperature. The Queen bee hunkers down atop her eggs like a broody hen, vibrating her thorax to keep them warm. Dipping into her pot of nectar when she needs energy and sustenance, she sits atop until her eggs hatch into larvae and then pupate into the first batch of worker bees.