Bumblebees, the Boraginaceae, and You

Well bumblebees you should know about. We have 20 species resident in Wales out of the 25 species still just about found in UK including 4 species out of the 7 really rare and badly off ones. They are all having a pretty poor early season this year, partly due to it having been a relatively cold spring until this week and I am not sure whether a larger number of queens were drowned during hibernation this year after the wettest winter on record.

Fig 1 Echium in Swansea

Fig 1 Echium in Swansea

The Boraginaceae is a family of plants, and some of them happen to be by far the best bumblebee restaurants ever, and repeat flower for a long time, exactly what a bumblebee needs. Our native Viper’s Bugloss and Comfrey does the job in the countryside but you can help in your gardens. There is just enough time to get out there and buy a packet of seeds of annual Borage and/or an Echium called “Blue Bedder” (available from most leading garden seed merchants) and sow it in the next fortnight. And you should have a mass of flowers and bumblebees in your garden from July to October.

What bumblebees need now is food, not the indigestion of reading the endless words and proposed actions in the various Pollinator Action Plans which have been produced by the devolved governments of this disunited kingdom.

If you are mad or just want a horticulture challenge you might want to try growing one of the other Echium species native to the Atlantic islands. For more than a decade I and others in South Wales have been growing the Jewel of Tenerife or as I have now seen it labelled Giant Viper’s Bugloss (Echium pininana) with some success. They like good drainage (particularly in winter), and are frost tolerant to a degree, but can take up to 5 years to flower, but when they do, you and everybody else in the vicinity will know about it, as their flowers spikes are between 16-20 feet tall. They seem to be remarkably wind tolerant, never having lost one to being uprooted.

A Trust member in Swansea has had to wait 5 years for this magnificent flower to appear, this year (Fig. 1). In my garden in West Bridgend, having lost all my outside plants in the severe winter of 2010, I have had to wait only 3 years for this (Fig 2). There are monocarpic, so they died once they have flowered, but seed profusely before doing so. Already, I have two year old plants and this year’s seedlings to attempt to be able to have this plant flowering in successive years.

As you can see, the flowers are now open at the bottom, and will continue to repeat flower there as the rest of the column comes into flower and will last until the bumblebees are ready to go into hibernation in the autumn (Fig. 3). Last Sunday I had my first Tree Bumblebee of the year feeding in my garden. (Fig. 4)

If you do nothing else plant a pinch of Borage seed and at least you will have something to go with your Pimms on those long barmy August evenings we are going to enjoy this year.

Nigel Ajax Lewis