We caught PETER FROST dozing in the garden deckchair on a summer afternoon.

It was a warm afternoon, just right for a snooze in the garden. The scent from the flower border was heady. The sounds of summer were buzzing in my ears and in the flowerbeds nearby.

Just a foot or so from my head I could see the flowers of the beautiful wild woodland flower the purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). The foxgloves deep pink mouth with its delicate pattern looked as exotic as any rain forest orchid.

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Forcing its great body into the flower was a huge and hairy bee, almost the size of a walnut. It seemed impossible that such a huge insect could be carried by the frantic flapping of its tiny, fragile and transparent wings.

I was reminded of Joyce Grenfell’s wonderful little poem.

The bumblebee is oddly wrought,
Aerodynamically it ought
To find it quite impossible to rise
But bumblebees don’t know the rule
‘Cos bumblebees don’t go to school
They flies

My garden visitor was the largest of our native British bumblebees, the buff-tailed bumblebee sometimes called the large earth bumblebee (Bombus terrestris).

This was an early season queen and those who study such things tell us she may well have hauled her inch and a quarter (3cm) long, almost spherical, body as much as eight miles (13 Km.) from her nest in search of food.

She will weigh nearly one gram and can carry almost her body weight in pollen back to the nest.

The nest may well be in an old mouse burrow and over the summer she will build up a small colony of perhaps 150 smaller worker bees in the nest.

The buff tailed bumblebee is such a good pollinator it has been bred in captivity and used in greenhouses all over the world, as far away as New Zealand. You can actually buy these bumblebees on the internet.

For me any bumblebee is the delight of those hazy, lazy days of summer.  Their animated behaviour and deep buzz as they fly from flower to flower makes them delightful and entertaining outdoor and garden companions.

Bumblebees do sting but are much less aggressive than honeybees or wasps.

The characteristic buzz is generated not by their wings but by the powerful muscles inside their bodies.

Sadly our bumblebees are under threat. Of our two dozen British species two have become extinct in the UK since 1940.

Changes in the countryside that have reduced the number of wild flowers are mostly to blame along with the irresponsible and excessive use of agricultural insecticides.

In the UK there are two dozen species of bumblebee but only eight are common. Bumblebees are found in a variety of habitats.

Gardens, if they have the right kinds of flowering plants, are popular with bees and key to the insect’s survival.

Britain has lost almost all (97 per cent) of our flower-rich grassland and meadows since the 1930s. As bees rely entirely upon flowers for food, it isn’t surprising that populations are rapidly declining.

Should we worry? Of course we should. It is well-known that bumblebees are important pollinators of the food crops.

Through the pollination of horticultural crops from apples to strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to our economy.

If bumblebee and other insect pollinator continue to decline, the extremely high cost of pollinating these plants by artificial means could significantly increase the cost of fruit and vegetables.

Bumblebees also help pollinate many wildflowers making for a more beautiful and healthy countryside.

Wild plants are the basis of complex food chains so bees also make a massive contribution to biodiversity. It is easy to imagine how other wildlife such as other insects, birds and mammals would all suffer if bees disappeared.

If you want to do something to preserve these fascinating and essential insects a good first step is to contact The Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

The Trust campaigns for environmental change and greener farming as well as offering good garden and conservation advice.


This article first appeared in the Morning Star in the summer of 2013

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