The meaning of a winter bumblebee

As I drove back from Paignton, the low sun cast long shadows across the sensuous folds of the South Hams hills. But the sunshine was deceptive; the temperature outside was 7oC and in the distance, there stood Dartmoor sprinkled liberally with snow like icing sugar on a cake. It was our first taste of winter and, inspired by Mark Cocker’s recent Guardian Country Diary on “The meaning of a bumblebee”, I had been to Roundham Head in Paignton to see what insects were about on this cold day.



There were pockets of warmth in sheltered corners of the Roundham Head Gardens but generally it felt cold in the wind and by the time I got back to the car my hands were numb. Despite the conditions, there were plenty of flowers about: yellow scorpion vetch in profusion, hanging curtains of rosemary with a few grey-blue flowers, exotic pink and white grevillea, purple spikes of hebe and the pink cup-shaped flowers of bergenia.

painted lady butterfly in winter
Painted lady butterfly on rosemary


What about the insects? I saw a few large black flies and one hopeful hoverfly but my biggest surprise was two smart looking painted lady butterflies enjoying the sunshine. Seeing bumblebees required patience but eventually I was rewarded by the appearance of a few buff-tailed bumblebee workers filling their pollen baskets by probing the rosemary, grevillea and bergenia. I also saw one plump and furry buff-tailed queen meticulously working the bergenia flowers before she flew off.

buff-tailed bumblebee worker 2
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on rosemary



buff-tailed bumblebee worker 3
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) worker on bergenia. The pollen baskets are visible.


buff-tailed bumblebee queen1
Buff-tailed bumblebee (B.terrestris) queen on bergenia


Mark Cocker attributes his surprise sighting of a bumblebee in Norfolk on January 1st to anthropogenic global warming and anomalous weather linked to El Nino but there must also be suitable forage for the bumblebees if they are to be active in winter and survive. The British penchant for gardening and for planting winter-flowering shrubs seems to supply this forage.

tamarisk by torbay
The view across Torbay from Roundham Head Gardens with tamarisk in the foreground


I visited Roundham Head Gardens on January 15th 2016

15 thoughts on “The meaning of a winter bumblebee”

  1. I agree. There seems to be so much more in flower over winter nowadays (especially this year!) and the amenity planting seems to be playing its part as well (as it does for the birds). My local winter active bumbles are on the mahonia outside our local Co-op for the 2nd year!


  2. In the winter it is easier for us to see the importance of the plants for the pollinators. It underlines their importance. I envy your walk. Since the turn of the year we have been having so much rain that I have been getting out much less. Amelia


  3. I wondered if Europe was also affected by the El Niño. We have gotten so much more rain than the last few years. I see from the rain totals that we are now at 7.43″ (188.7 mm)…that’s “year to date” or only 20 days of January.
    The last time I saw any bumblebees was on November 21…on the Oregon Grape at the city post office. Oregon grape is a Mahonia aquifolium.
    Tell Hazel I like her very sharp bee photos…I might be slightly envious. 🙂


    1. Thanks for your comments, I am glad you liked the photos. It has also been very wet here and mild with only a couple of frosts in the morning so far.
      Bumblebees in late November seem unusual but then I dont know what is normal for Oregon. Do you know if they were workers or queens??


  4. Great pictures – you wouldn’t think it was January. I hope the cold snap this week hasn’t done too much damage.
    That grevillea is astounding – I have never looked closely at it before.
    I usually have red admiral butterflies on my Mahonia in winter, but I have never thought about looking for bees.
    All the best 🙂


  5. Thanks for your comment, I am glad you liked the photos. Whenever I see grevillea I am amazed at how exotic it looks and I have to stop and stare. It’s a great favourite of the bumblebees at certain times of year.
    Do have a look at your mahonia for bees, it would be inetresting to know if they are out in Wales in the winter.

    Liked by 1 person

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