Over the last few weeks the British countryside and particularly the gardens, woods and fields around Madingley have really come to life. From where I am sitting in my office, I can see the meadow at the back of Madingley Hall sparkling in the sun and bespeckled with pale yellow; the flowers of hundreds of cowslips.
Here and there delicate pink cuckoo flowers are in bloom, providing a rich resource for springtime bees and butterflies. Walk along one of the mowed paths through the meadow and you can see bees at work, particularly bumblebees, as they drone from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar for their developing nests.
Follow one of these furry little foragers back to their home and their lives appear even more remarkable. Many, like the buff-tailed bumblebee, one of our commonest species, make their nest below ground in deserted mouse holes. In the early spring the new queens emerge from hibernation and search for a new home. This is when you can see them hovering like miniature helicopters low over the ground, occasionally dropping down to inspect a likely looking hole or crevice. Soon they set up shop and start to construct cells of wax, which they provision with pollen and nectar and where they lay their eggs.
As the season develops, the eggs hatch into grubs, which are fed by the young queen and grow rapidly. After a few weeks, they pupate and then emerge as new adults: the first generation of workers. Now the queen no longer leaves the nest, but stays at home laying more eggs for the workers to tend. As spring turns to summer and the nest expands, more and more workers are produced until a single colony can number several hundred individuals!
But, despite the prosperity, things are not as peaceful as they appear. As the colony grows it is time for the next generation of queens and males to be produced and now mutiny occurs. To produce these new reproductive individuals, the queen relaxes production of special pheromones by which she has been keeping the workers under control. Without these chemical shackles, anarchy breaks loose and the workers begin to lay their own eggs and can even attack and kill the queen, their mother! To think that all this life and tragedy can occur just below our feet in a Cambridgeshire garden.
With so many insects flying around the meadow at Madingley, it is easy to forget that bees and other pollinators have declined severely during the last century. What caused the dramatic loss isn’t entirely clear. The destruction of flower-rich meadows with agricultural intensification and increases in herbicide and fertiliser use were probably major factors. But in recent years, researchers have identified another potentially serious threat. Pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are very widely used on flowering crops such as oilseed rape, not only stop colonies from growing as quickly, but also reduce the chance that foraging workers will find their way back to the nest. Partly as a result of this growing evidence, the EU recently passed legislation to ban the use of three of these pesticides on flowering crops for the next two years.
Hopefully this initiative and the use of more biodiversity-friendly farming methods are helping to restore wild pollinator communities to their former glory. Not only are these remarkable species part of the natural world, but they carry out invaluable services for us by pollinating many of our crops. If you have a garden or even just a window box, you can also help make sure that these pollinators get enough to eat, by planting bee-friendly flowers and by not being too precious about tidying up your borders. After all, what would summer be without the buzz of bees?
Dr Ed Turner, former ICE Teaching Officer and Academic Director in Biological Sciences