Friday, 29 April 2011

Say I'm the Only (Queen) Bee in Your Bonnet*

Photo of an identical bee from the site www.meades.org

 As the Royal Wedding celebrations drew to a close today (Prince William marrying Kate Middleton), my eyes were drawn to a different kind of royalty altogether. A Queen. One I've never seen before, in spite of a lifetime of nature watching!

This one was a huge, hairy, clumsy, bumbling Queen with a very active social life. But today, she was all alone, not doing the hokey-cokey at a street party!

Hopping away across the concrete patio towards the lawn was a large type of Bumblebee I didn't recognise. No golden stripes. No stripes at all! Just a very large black body, a couple of centimetres long and plump, with a rusty orange/red tail. This Queen was literally hopping, not just crawling as bees normally seem to do.

A bit of hasty Googling revealed it's one of the six common Bumblebees in the UK. Bees are notieceably scarcer these days, particularly the threatened honey bee. But this Bumblebee was alive and well and on the move after hibernation. I found the photo above and several like it, showing my new furry friend to be a Queen of the species Bombus lapidarius (Apis lapidaria), the Red-Tailed Bumblebee.

Only the Queen survives the winter. Maybe she's lucky to have survived at all from a bitter winter like the one we've just had. She must have overwintered under a stone or in a crevice, maybe in my neighbour's garden. She first emerged through the wrought iron gate that separates our plots of land. Now she's off, as the spring sunshine calls her out from her winter quarters, to found a new colony or take over an old one.

First, she'll be loading herself up with pollen from all the spring flowers that are now brightening up the borders, foraging and getting ready. Then she'll start her nest, making a waxy honey pot and filling it with the regurgitated pollen, or honey, as we humans prefer to think of it! She'll keep bringing in more pollen and mix some with nectar to produce what we call "bee bread". 

The workers will be produced from her eggs to develop the colony. Then it's time for the males and new young queens to join the fun and eventually mate to carry on the species. The males will die, leaving the new queen to crawl (or hop!) away to overwinter just like this old lady has been doing. Then her own life and work are at an end.

Apparently, the Red-tailed Bumblebee is quite common in the south of England, and found nationwide except in the north of Scotland. I also spotted a puzzled mention of them on a forum as being seen by someone for the first time in Sheffield, Yorkshire, the next major city to the south west from here, in early May last year.

I feel very privileged to spot this handsome lady on her way to make more of these beautiful bees! It will be interesting to see if the males appear around my borders in the summer.

I may never see this Queen again, but long live her unique loveliness. It'll stay with me forever!

Please leave a comment if you've seen this stunning species too! Thanks!

*Title of this post paraphrased (clumsily!) from the lyrics: "Say I'm the only bee in your bonnet" from the song "Birdhouse in Your Soul" penned by that modest genius John Linnell from the 1990 album "Flood" by my all-time favourite band, They Might Be Giants. Their new album "Join Us" is out on July 19th on Idlewild/Rounder Records, with 4 advance tracks already out this Tuesday April 26th, available on iTunes and at 
http://merchdirect.com/TheyMightBeGiants 

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