There is an almost infinite variety of woodland and hedgerow flora, with the Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, 20-30cm) perhaps the best known and best loved of the group.
Individually they are attractive; in bulk, either in open woodland or on the margins, they are breathtaking, and in some cases eyecatching enough to bring pedestrians, cyclists or even car drivers to a halt. Of course they change the structure of the soil, and can create something of a monoculture, but what a monoculture!
Bluebells can spring up in even the most seemingly barren landscape after fire, helped by the amount of sunlight coming through. They require cover from the sun in the summer, be it tree foliage or bracken, as in the open landscape pictured on this page. What they do not need is shading in the spring, and to obtain this, proper woodland management including thinning and coppicing is essential.
Unfortunately there possibly is now another issue, since warmer winters and springs may be encouraging trees to come into bud and leaf earlier than suits the Bluebells. Time will tell whether this is going to pose a threat to the species. What is already posing a threat is the Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), a tougher plant commonly found in gardens which has colonised quite a lot of woodland, hybridising readily with the native Bluebell. As with so many invasive alien species, controlling the Spanish Bluebell’s encroachment is extremely problematical.
The appeal of Bluebells to nectaring or pollen-gathering bees and to hoverflies is acknowledged, and bumblebees are among the principal beneficiaries because they are active in the spring. Bumblebees have suffered a major decline since the 1950s, to the extent that half of our native species are in danger. The blame can be ascribed among other things to lack of woodland management and the widespread disappearance of open, semi-natural habitats containing flowers. The more pollen-bearing flowers in the wild or gardens, the better it is for bumblebees.
None of the species shown here is in danger. Bombus pratorum (Early Bumblebee, 15mm) is one of the smallest and, as the name suggests, is readily seen in springtime. Nests can be made almost anywhere – underground, in bushes or trees – and are both short-lived and numerically smaller than most, with often fewer than 100 workers.
Widespread and common, Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed Bumblebee, 23mm) can be seen as early as February when the queen may be searching for a nest site. They can still be seen in October. Nests are underground and are large, with more than 300 workers on occasions. The tail varies from dull white to orange via buff.
Bombus lapidarius (Red-tailed Bumblebee, 25mm) is very obvious and seen from March to October. The nest, which can have 200 workers, is built in various different locations, usually in open areas. This species is parasitised by the imposing Bombus rupestris (28mm), which differs principally in the wings being much darker. These cuckoo bees need no pollen-gathering equipment because they take over the host’s nest by killing the queen and replacing her. This happens in May or June, with a new generation emerging in the summer.
Bombus pascuorum (Common Carder Bee, 18mm) is an expanding species nationally and another one seen from March to October. Their nests have around 100 workers.
A number of solitary mining bees use Bluebells, but there can be peril on the plant, as the pictured Crab Spider (Misumena vatia, body 8mm), poorly camouflaged for once and awaiting the company of a bee, confirms.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.