THIS time last year, our house-guests mentioned a strange humming sound in our spare bedroom. The central-heating boiler was investigated, followed by all electronic devices in the vicinity, but the mystery remained.
Eventually, it was deemed to be from outside the house. Perhaps it was a device used at the local farm to disorientate the rabbits and facilitate a cull. The explanations became more far fetched with each glass of wine consumed. Our guests departed, and “the sound” faded into the background. But then “the smell” arrived; it was not unpleasant, but it was certainly unfamiliar — a medicinal, burnt, spicy, honey aroma.
The eureka moment came when I was mowing, and noticed among the seemingly random movements of the flying insects a homing in on, and emergence from, a small hole in the brickwork below the spare bedroom. When I investigated, I found that bumblebees were coming and going from what was evidently their nest between floors.
My online research indicated that bumblebees nest in all sorts of places, according to species. They do not swarm, and are generally non-aggressive. They make small amounts of a honey-like substance.
Our nest below the floorboards would die in the autumn, but it was possible that a new queen would use the same site the next year. If I wanted to prevent this, I could block the hole during the winter. But I had been visiting the spare room specially to hear the comforting drone of the nest, and I certainly was not going to put up a barrier.
There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, each with different lengths of tongue suited to feeding from different flowers. They are important pollinators of our food crops and wildflowers. Without them, many of our fruit and vegetables would fail to develop, and the wildflowers would not set seed.
Bumblebees have been in decline as fields have got bigger, and flowers and nest sites fewer. Add to this the 20 or more chemicals sprayed over most arable fields each year, and it is not surprising that two species have become extinct in the UK since 1940.
As gardeners, we can ensure that we grow bumblebee-friendly flowers. This means avoiding fancy double-flowered cultivars. A quick scout around my plot reveals scabious, lavender, foxgloves, and delphiniums as firm favourites. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website helps you to assess how bee friendly your garden is.
It is also about campaigning for bee-friendly bedding plants, or, better still, wildflowers in our parks and public spaces and less frequent mowing of roadside verges. Telford and Wrekin Council has been sowing its roundabouts with annual meadow species each spring. It is cost-effective, and bee-friendly.
We are expecting our first human visitors of the summer, but I can happily report that a new colony of the apiarian variety is already here to welcome them.