As if reborn, the queen bumblebee emerges from hibernation. For six months she has crouched inside an earth-lined chamber, fat from her autumn binge has kept her alive and the ground has protected her from icy temperatures. She’s been woken by the warming soil. Pushing herself free of her winter cell her rufous tail is a fiery beacon in the gloom of the undergrowth. She stumbles into the spring sunshine to clean herself.
The sun’s warm but not warm enough for the bumblebee to fly. She uncouples her flight muscles and shivers her body, slowly raising her temperature to 30°C. Minutes later, warmed and ready, twin sets of gossamer wings lift her into the air. She needs nectar, soon. These first few flights, the number of flowers, the weather, they’ll all determine her fate.
Stepping out into the garden the months of drizzle and darkness seem like a distant memory. I tilt my head up to the sun, close my eyes and take a long delicious sniff of warm soil. God, I love spring. There’s so much to do, the garden’s a mess but I can feel new life pulsing through the air.
The stems of last year’s Michaelmas daisies stand brittle and brown but beneath them the crocus are blooming, and their purple and white flowers lay scattered like sweet papers in the unraked leaves.
While I’m cutting back stems the song of a blackcap trickles down from the top of the apple tree. I lay down my trowel to listen. Any excuse to stretch my back and loosen my neck, any excuse to do absolutely nothing.
A lemon-yellow brimstone, in a hurry to find a butterfly mate, break-dances across the lawn and disappears over the hedge – it’s frustrating, I never manage to get close to them at this time of year.
The queen has travelled for more than a mile, resting then flying, resting then flying. At each stop there’s been a few blooms, but not enough for her to consider stopping for long. As she flies over yet another hedge her reserves are critically low but at last there are flowers, hundreds of flowers.
Clumsily landing, she plunges her proboscis into the sweet nectary of a crocus and her hairy tongue laps up the “drink of the gods”.
Seeing and hearing my first bumblebee of the year is always special. Today it’s a red-tailed humble bee, a freshly emerged but exhausted queen who lands on a crocus by my feet.
Her Latin name is Bombus lapidarius, meaning “booming” and “relating to stone”. Is her preference for nesting at the base of stone walls – where her buzzing will echo – the reason for her name?
I crouch and watch as she bumbles from flower to flower, ink-black hairs glisten with pollen and as her honey-stomach fills her tail bobs in time with her sips.
Welcome back little bee. Welcome back to spring.