Sunday, 28 June 2015

Another World at the end of our Garden

It's been a week or two since I've had a moment's time for myself to sit and write for this blog, sorry to anyone who's been waiting.

As I write this entry looking out of the window at the drizzle and grey skies, waiting for summer to return it gives a me chance to tell you about an evening last week in my garden in Redditch at the end of a long hot day.

I'd spent the previous ten days working without break on the business, writing and producing books, building websites and studying just about everything I can lay my hands on to help us succeed in our new venture. I'd barely seen the sky or any form of wildlife and I was starting to twitch.

On the afternoon of June 23rd my brain finally froze. The words I was writing started to look like the illegible nonsense of a drunk fish. I gazed out into the garden and saw that the sun was still shining and our wildlife was busy feeding their young. 

I grabbed my camera and left my overheated laptop which recently has become a fifth limb and headed for our vegetable patch and a nest box that was originally put up for the Bluetits but was now occupied by a colony of Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum. I'm captivated for the next hour by the complex web of life before my eyes at the end of our garden.


We often overlook the humble Bumblebee. We all see them buzzing around, landing on flowers rather clumsily. They look like they shouldn't be able to fly at all, their bodies look out of proportion compared to their small wings. Don't be fooled the 24 UK species are all strong fliers and hardy little beasts that have a fascinating life cycle.  

Bumblebees are social insects governed by the all powerful Queen. She rises out of her isolated winter hibernation when the first heat of spring seeps into the earth she is cocooned in. She's survived solely on her fat stores from last summer and now she spends the first few days stocking up, feeding on the nectar of spring flowers to regain her strength and energy for the months ahead. She's the nest builder, egg layer and creator of the complex social hive. She is the engine of her genetic line and she has no time to waste.

After regaining her strength the Queen will then look for a suitable home for her nest. Long grass, holes in trees or buildings. Loft spaces are often a favourite place and of course unused nest boxes. This year we have two boxes occupied by the bees, one at the base of our Eucalyptus tree and one overlooking our vegetable patch.

After selecting a location she then sets about collecting pollen so that she can construct a mound of pollen and wax that she secretes from her body to lay her eggs into. She also creates honey pots that she has in front of the mound, filled with nectar so that while she's incubating the eggs she doesn't have to leave to gather food. She'll sit on her eggs using heat caused by the vibration of her abdomen for approximately 7-10 days, sipping from her honey pots for nourishment. When the grub like larvae eventually hatch they're fed by the Queen who delivers fresh nectar from nearby flowers. It takes about two weeks for the grubs to put on enough weight to start the process of the pupa stage of their life. When the grubs are ready they spin a silk cocoon in which they will develop into the adult form.

The first brood born in early summer are all females and their sole job is to look after the nest. Some clean and some are on guard duty while the rest can be seen bumbling around our gardens collecting pollen and nectar from the flowering plants. The majority of the food will be taken back to the nest to feed the other workers and the next generation. At this stage the Queen stays in the heart of the colony, giving out pheromone instruction and laying eggs. 

As late summer marches in, with notably shorter days the Queen starts producing males and new Queens. The males leave and become solitary, they spend their time feeding and watching football (I'm joking). The young queens shortly after leave the nest to seek out the new males and go about the mating game to ensure the future of the bloodline. Very similar to our Royals except they don't have live TV coverage at every stage, unless Attenborough shows up!





You might have seen the mating of the Bumbles. It tends to be a rather ungentlemanly affair with several horny bees chasing down and fighting over the royal lady. Most males never get to mate, only the fittest and maybe the most charming (we'll never know) get the sire the lady.

Once the Queens have mated their job is to consume as much energy rich nectar and pollen as they can to build up their fat stores. They have a long cold winter of subterranean hibernation to get through.

As the days grow shorter the old nest with the old Queen will come to its natural end. She's done her job and the sands of time catch up with her. Only her impregnated daughters will survive to see the spring and pass on her genetic heritage. So the cycle of life will begin again with a faint buzzing and a dance among the spring flowers. 

If there is a moral to this story and I suppose there is, it is don't go through life with your eyes closed. Amazing lives and worlds exist all around us. Sure it's fun to travel and explore the natural World in far off lands and see exotic beasts that you've seen on TV. But equally beautiful are the lives taking place all around us. It's often the small things that are the most complex and fascinating and you barely have to put on your shoes to see them. The next sunny day go out into your garden or sit on a windowsill with the window open and before long you'll hear the familiar buzzing of a bumblebee. You don't need to know it's species just know that it's part of a greater web of life that's feeding, mating, living and dying all around you and it'll be happening whether you're there to observe it or not. It's a shame to miss though, don't you think?