'The buzz of a bumblebee is unmistakable. Not an angry sound like a wasp, nor a harsh, zippy sound like a fly. It's a deep, loud, lazy vibration, like an old Lancaster bomber on a Sunday jaunt, that heralds spring and typifies summer.'

- Lynn Dicks -'Tumbling bumblebees', BBC website
Bumble bee on Veronica longifolia

Elsewhere on this website I've mentioned the bee swarm that visited the garden some years ago. They were honey bees - hundreds of them arriving at once. The other bees in the garden are around in smaller numbers. And on the whole, like many people, I've generally taken bees for granted. This year, after reading about dwindling numbers, I began to take more notice of these fascinating furry little beasties, particularly after a bumblebee nest was made in the corner of the garden.

Bumblebee variety

Bumble bee

The buzzing of bees seems very much part of the summer garden. There have been, I now see, different species of bumblebee visiting, though I only noticed the variations between them once I started taking more notice and taking photographs.

I'm still a little confused about identification, but when referred to by their proper scientific names, these chubby-looking bees are all 'Bombus', with many different types, including Bombus terrestris, Bombus lapidarius, Bombus hortorum, etc.

I assumed that the common name bumble bee was a corruption of this proper name, or came about from the way they're rather plump and heavy-looking and tend to bumble about, particularly when they get trapped inside, and fling themselves against a window pane. But no, the dictionary says, it's from the Old English word 'bumblen' - 'to make a humming noise'. Which is rather nice. Websters defines the bumblebee as 'Robust hairy social bee of temperate regions'. Which is rather nice too.

Gardening for bees

Bumble bee - probably a Carder bee, 15 September 2007

Many websites - including those mentioned at the bottom of this page - include information on planting a bee-friendly garden. In my own garden I've noticed certain flowers are visited most often by bees. Apparently some bee types have long tongues, others short tongues, and this presumably influences their choice of flower. In my own garden I've noticed that in early summer bees like the foxgloves. In more recent months I've seen them on the delphiniums, angelica, and on the dainty flowers of the heuchera, like this one pictured here, left, hanging off the heuchera flowers, in mid-September.

They particularly seem to favour the dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'. Unlike many of the more modern dahlias, this is a single-flowered type, with fairly simple, open flowers, red with a yellow centre (see photo, right), which they seem to like wandering about in, coming out covered in pollen.

Helpful guidance on planting for bees, from Gardeners' World. (See also: links at foot of page.)

And while I feel a little guilty sometimes that my garden isn't quite as well-groomed as it was in its early days, it seems I don't have to feel bad. An article in the Guardian says 'Slightly neglected gardens are particularly good habitats for the bees'. Maybe that's why I've seen more of them this year . . .

Bumblebee nest - orange-bottomed bee

I noticed frequent visits by one particular type of bee to a particular spot in the garden, and realised that a bumblebee nest was being made. In Kitchen Corner, where two walls of the house meet at right angles, there's an old water tank I'm using as a planter. Mice had built a nest in the container previously - as I guessed one day last summer when watering, when a mouse suddenly shot out from under the container. Further investigation revealed a couple of small holes in the compost - one under a plantpot I'd placed on the surface.

Bumble bee - I think it's Bombus pratorum

Further reading suggested that abandoned mouse nests are often favoured by nesting bumblebees, and it seems my garden's bumblebees had found this one to their liking. The bees would land on the surface and disappear under the plantpot standing on the container's surface. The bees had an orange tail end, like this one pictured left. I think it's the early bumblebee - Bombus pratorum - though as the different scientific names aren't yet committed to memory, I tend to call it the orange-bottomed bee.

From social bees to solitary bees

As we've seen from the definition above, bumblebees are 'social' bees. So called because they form colonies. Honey bees are also social bees.

Other bees are classed as solitary bees, as they make a nest alone. One solitary bee is known as the Hairy Footed Flower Bee. Unfortunately I've not seen this marvellous-sounding creature - (though as I'm so new to all this bee-watching I guess I wouldn't recognise it if I did. Unless its hairy feet are really uncommonly big). But I have met and captured on camera another type of solitary bee - the leaf-cutter bee making off with bits of my epimediums.


Links to more information

What bee did I see? - identification help, and bee information from The Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Also includes a page on Gardening for bumblebees

www.bumblebee.org - full of information and including a very helpful FAQs page

Recognising your bumblebee - from Buglife

Information on solitary bees (including leaf-cutter bees) from www.insectpix.net

How to get a buzz out of your garden - the Guardian

Plea to gardeners: keep a little patch unclipped to help save bumblebees - the Guardian

International Bee Research Association - includes a helpful FAQs page

From a beekeeper - and a long-time friend of this website: Bees in the Antipodes

Bumble bee on euphorbia

Above: bumblebee on the flowers of Euphorbia cornigera, in early summer

Bumble bee on the delphiniums

Above: bumblebee on delphinium flower, August 2007

Bumble bee on heuchera flower

Above: in mid-September, a bumblebee hanging from the dainty flowers of a heuchera

Bumble bee on Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'

Above: the bumblebees seem to particularly like the single flowered old-fashioned dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'