Notes from a bee stalker in February

Yesterday I woke up to a beautifully clear, sunny February morning. For the first time this year, I opened the door to welcome in the fresh air and beaming morning rays into the house. To my surprise and amusement a honeybee flew straight in to join me for breakfast! I helped her back outside and she darted off down the hill. This was the first honeybee I’d seen any distance away from the warmth and shelter of a hive this year. Is it really warm enough for them to be venturing out? I looked out at the beaming sun through my door and knew exactly what this all meant for my Wednesday … work was to be postponed for some long anticipated bee stalking.

I headed for the nearby Dartington Hall Gardens where last week I’d seen my first Bumblebee queen of 2015 hovering around her nest in the ground. If there were any early spring bees to be stalked, I knew I would find them there.

Crocus field

I arrived to a beautiful sea of Crocuses with petals spread wide open and honeybees dancing across their petal tops in a drunken pollen frenzy. It turns out that the temperature yesterday shot up to 12°C [the average temperature for April] from 8°C the previous day and these Crocuses responded with beautiful spring offerings to the pollinator world. Amongst the bees were also flies, hover flies and even a red admiral butterfly fluttering around in the February heat. A decade ago these butterflies would have migrated to England from Europe later in the year but it seems they can now survive the winter here in Devon and enjoy a flutter in February.

honeybee approaching crocus

A honeybee coming into land

Unusually, the honeybees seemed cautious of my presence and avoided the flowers closest to me. More frequently I experience them being overwhelmingly seduced by the flower and totally oblivious of what I do around them. I wondered whether I was the first human these young, spring foragers had experienced? During the last few months, since their winter birth, these honeybees would have been safely tucked inside their hives working away to keep the colony clean and warm with only their worker bee sisters and the queen as familiar company.

honeybee on crocus

Taking a drink of nectar from a Crocus

This time of year honeybees will be acutely aware of their diminishing overwinter honey stores. An opportunity in February to bring in some glorious nectar and pollen can mean life or death for a honeybee colony. It was great to see them out and about, smothering themselves in the Crocus pollen and flying back to their hives with big orange balls of the stuff. Back in the colony, this will be well-received nourishment until the next day of warmth allows another flurry of flowery gifts.

Honeybee in crocus

Intertwined in the stigma and stamen of a Crocus

Although not quite as popular with the honeybees, but also on offer were the majestic Snowdrops. Yesterday was the first time I’d seen any bees on the snowdrops this year even though they’ve been in bloom for a while. The bumblebee queen I’d watched last week was flying straight over vast clumps of snowdrops to forage on a Mahonia plant further in the distance. Perhaps snowdrops are a last resort forage supply or perhaps the Mahonia is too good to resist? 

honeybee on snowdrop A honeybee giving me a good look before entering a snowdrop

honeybee and snowdropSpread eagle!

The same Buff Tailed Bumblebee queen appeared for me once more yesterday and I followed her around for a while. Most of her time was spent basking in the sun on the ground and on the leaves of trees and occasionally she would drink from the Crocuses. Then she did something quite bizarre – She flew over to a daffodil and nibbled three small holes in the underside of its corona [which you can just about see in the photo above]. I’ve read about bumblebees biting holes in the petals of flowers when they can’t fit inside it to get at the nectar so they just stick their tongue through the holes to drink the nectar straight from the flower’s base. This bee made holes into the petals but then went right inside anyway. Perhaps even though she could enter the flower, the nectar from the daffodil is only accessed from these holes? If anyone knows what she might have been up to please do share …

Terrestris chewing holes in Daffodil

Buff tailed Bumblebee [Bombus Terrestris] nibbling a Daffodil corona

Bombus Terrestris on Daffodil

And then inside the same Daffodil

My experience bee stalking over the last week has made it clear to me just how important it is that we grow plants to provide early forage for both our wild bees and honeybees. Luckily for us, the early nectar providers that bees love like Snowdrop, Crocus and Mahonia are also the kinds of things we love so that makes our job as human bee guardians rather convenient!