IDENTIFYING bumblebees isn’t all that easy because the queens, males and workers often have different markings and face colours. Size varies, too. The first bees to emerge from the nest are often tiny, but as the colony develops more food becomes available. As a result of more food, the size of the bees increases. I encountered both problems in the mid-1980s, when I tried to track red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius) for a nationwide survey. The early workers were so tiny that I failed to identify them. I have learnt to ignore size and concentrate on the bands and tail markings instead.
Queen bees are the easiest of all to identify, and many of these large bees fly fairly slowly early in the year, because temperatures are low. Many warm themselves up on our south-facing front door and stone walls, so we get a good look. The first red-tailed queens emerge in March and they make nests in mouse holes, and there’s normally at least one nest in my garden. The workers appear from April onwards, and males and new females are seen from July to early October. These colourful bees are fond of annual blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), so I always grow some in the garden just for them.
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