The late spring this year has not been kind to our insects. They seem to be in lower numbers than usual, which is bad news for all the other species in the food chain above them. Birds, for instance, need copious supplies of insects to feed their young, and flowering plants need their pollinators.
However, on a morning walk around the herbaceous beds at Exbury Gardens with an entomologist, concentrating for the most part on bumblebees, we did manage to find a fair selection of them. You might think that a bumblebee is a bumblebee. However, that is not the case. There are in fact 22 species in the UK, but don't worry, you are only likely to come across (at most) 7 of them in your garden. Many of the others are rare, or restricted to certain habitats such as chalk downland.
The large bumbles that you see in the spring are the queens which have emerged from hibernation and are looking for fuel in the form of nectar and pollen. They build a nest and raise workers, which are female. Once the workers are on the wing the queen stays in the nest and devotes herself entirely to egg-laying. The workers, which you mainly see at this time of the year, are often smaller versions of the queen, but in some species the markings are a little different.
How can you tell one species from another? It is a matter of looking at the pattern and colour of their markings and disregarding their size, since size can vary according to the amount of food the developing grub receives. The first thing to look at is their tail colour, which can be white, buffish, or reddish-brown. An easy one is red-tailed bumblebee, since both queens and workers are all black with a reddish tail. Two very common bumbles of similar appearance, have white or whiteish tails with one yellow stripe on the thorax and another on the abdomen. They are known as white-tailed or buff tailed bumblebees; the workers are hard to tell apart. You are also likely to see the common carder bee, which is gingery brown with a stripey abdomen and tail.
They are a fascinating group of bees, big enough to see easily and challenging enough to hold your interest.