All hail the queen

Outdoor Living

BEAUTY QUEEN Among buff-tailed bumblebees, only the queens actually have a buff tail; the rears of the female workers and male drones are white.  Pic: Rae/CC-by-2.0

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

What an honour, indeed, to welcome the Queen herself!
She arrived unannounced, though I heard her whisper from afar. Her voice, though no more than a murmur, gave a deep resonance to all other voices; the nearly urgent robin, the rooks overhead, Tintin the Great Tit pressing his mate in the acer.
I sought her out and found her looking close at early flowers, at the mauve and gold unfolding crocus, at the orange stamens deep within, and at the first open blue of grape hyacinth.
I followed her song again an hour later and found her at the foot of the crab tree, burrowing into last year’s fallen leaves, and knew exactly what she wanted. Perhaps at the base of the trunk, where roots diverge and spread, there would be some kind of cavity in the soil to give her a head start.
Eager to lend a hand, I pulled a handful of leaves to one side that she might see. At that she sat in silence and pulled her hands over her eyes as if to wipe them clean, then stared long until I knew well who the interloper was.
Not satisfied with my contribution, she moved about a foot to one side and went back to what she was doing. This time, content to sit and watch, I let her work alone.
I feel sure that the worst of insomniacs could not fail to sit here beneath swelling blossom-buds, with the song of the queen in their ears and February sun warm upon the cheek and yet remain awake. Her voice, which is really the sound of hardworking wings, is sonorous, soporific, a contemplative undulation, as of some Eastern monastery.
After a time my queen took her rest, using front and rear legs to groom the black and orange of her fur coat. (Black, I say, but no, on close inspection it is the deepest, darkest brown that could ever be imagined.) It was at this moment I got my first view of her buff-colored bottom and really knew who she was.
Buff-tailed bumblebees are among the more common of our 99 bee species. They are also one of the first to be out and about in the spring. Any warm late-winter day might wake one or two from hibernation and into a sunny corner. They hope to find food, of course. A dandelion flower would be perfect, though these are yet in short supply.
Back in the autumn these Queens fed hard, packing as much fat into their little bodies as they could. Now, despite the present lack of food, this individual still has plenty of energy.
We hear a lot about how important bees are for the human family. Do we see how important wild flowers are for the bees? We can’t have the one without the other.
I wonder where she came from? Will she find her way home before dusk? Or might she bed down in the leaves until daylight, and from there continue her search for a suitable nesting site?
Late last autumn she found somewhere safe to hibernate. Ordinarily, this hibernaculum would become her home for the busy reproductive season, which is about to begin. So why she searches is a mystery.
Before going to sleep she had found a mate, and now carries an entire colony within her plumply rounded body, in the form of both fertilised and unfertilised eggs.
A number of fertilised eggs are the first to be laid. When these hatch, our Queen will tend to the needs of her offspring, gleaning nectar and pollen where she may.
This first batch of eggs become female worker bees. Once they get busy the Queen can relax. All she now needs to do is lay more eggs and look on as her daughters get to work.
Some larvae from fertilised eggs will become Queens, while those that emerge from unfertilised eggs are invariably male. Adult males leave the nest almost immediately; theirs is a life of leisure, one of eating and  drinking while looking for a mate. Mated females will become Queen of their own colony a year hence.
From now until the end of October we shall have Bombus terrestris with us. Recent years have seen buff-tailed bumblebees active winter-long, perhaps in response to a changing climate.
Most bumblebees are placid and although armed with stinging mechanisms are quite indisposed to violence. They can even be picked up and handled without protest. Just don’t blame me if you find a grumpy one.
But my heart flies a metaphorical flag, for the Queen, the Queen is here!

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.