The ability of these large, furry bees with long tongues to successfully forage in cool, cloudy and even wet weather makes them some of the first easily visible insect visitors to our gardens in spring. It is the queens that are flying around at this time of year, having survived on their fat reserves overwinter, hibernating mostly in underground holes in well-drained soil on north-facing banks (the males and workers all perish in the autumn and winter). After emerging, the queens focus on feeding on nectar from flowers to regain energy before finding a suitable nest site such as tussocky grass, holes underground or utilising human structures such as garden sheds or bird boxes. They then collect pollen from flowers which they mix with wax secreted from their bodies to create a mound in which the queens lay their first batch of eggs. She also stores nectar in a wax pot-structure to sustain her while she remains with the eggs, shivering her muscles to keep them warm. Once the larvae hatch the queen feeds them with pollen and nectar from nearby flowers for a couple of weeks until the young spin cocoons inside which they develop into adult bees.
Of the 27 species of bumblebee currently on the British list there are a handful to look out for in late March/April around Aldbourne. Garden bumblebees (Bombus hortorum), have a strong association with deeper flowers due to their exceptionally long head and tongue. Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum), are very distinctive with a unique combination of a ginger thorax and pure white tail. Red-tailed bumblebee queens (Bombus lapidarius), pictured below, particularly visit sallows, gorses, dandelions and Oil-seed Rape. Common Carder Bees (Bombus pascuorum), have relatively small fluffy brown queens and while frequent garden visitors are also the commonest bumblebee of arable settings. Early bumblebees (Bombus pratorum), have small, fluffy queens with bright yellow collars, and finally, Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), have traditionally been early emerges but some have even begun starting colonies that overwinter instead of dying off, perhaps in response to out changing climate.