I used to think of February as a bit of an ‘empty’ month… the month between January and March, Winter and Spring, when nothing really happened. How wrong I was. February is in fact a month full of hope and promise. Life is stirring beneath and above the ground, buds are tentatively coming into leaf, Robins are pairing up and checking out nesting sites, and the evenings are becoming noticeably lighter. The sense of anticipation is almost tangible.
February also happens to be the month when enormous queen bumblebees begin to emerge from their long winter sleep. Although there are one or two species which have recently begun to raise broods over the winter, most of our 24 species of UK bumblebees have been hibernating, deep beneath the soil, since last Autumn.
With bumblebees, it is only the brand new (mated) queens, produced towards the end of the colony’s lifecycle, that hibernate beneath the ground and survive the winter. Apart from those occasional winter active colonies I mentioned in the last paragraph, last year’s males, the colony’s founding queen, and all her female workers will have died out long before winter set in. So, if you happen upon an ENORMOUS bumblebee at this time of year, she will be one of last year’s new queens just emerged from hibernation – most likely a Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), which are one of the first species to appear in the spring.
Our newly emerged queen urgently needs to forage for nectar to build up her strength after her long winter sleep… and for pollen, to develop her ovaries. Hopefully she will have chosen a hibernation site close to a plentiful supply of winter flowering plants such as winter-flowering heathers, honeysuckle and clematis, gorse, crocus, dead-nettles or pussy willow. However, if the sun has tricked her into emerging too early, and there is nothing for her to feed upon, she will starve. This is why these and other early flowering plants are literally life savers for our early rising pollinators. Other early spring favourites include hellebores, snowdrops, green alkanet and lungwort.
The ground is still too cold and hard to plant out right now, but if you are able to visit a garden centre to purchase any of the above plants, please do! They will be just as attractive to our hungry spring pollinators in their pots, whilst you wait for the soil to heat up to plant them out.