How sunshine can fool nature

Peacock butterflies can sometimes be tempted to come out of hibernation too soon. Picture: Russell S

Peacock butterflies can sometimes be tempted to come out of hibernation too soon. Picture: Russell Sparkes/ - Credit:

In the Countryside: A early burst of sunshine can fool insects that spring is here, says Rex Hancy.

A keen-eyed friend is able to identify a fluttering bird which is almost out of my vision. One very cold morning he picked up small movements on the mahonia in his garden. It was not a bird. Three bumblebees were busily feeding from the shrub so propitiously in flower. Had it been a bird an entry in his personal data store would have been made without any doubt as to sex or generation.

But bumblebees? In such unpleasant conditions at such a time of year? That, of course, is why the tale and the questions came to me.

Strange as it may seem and against all of our understanding of bees and their ways, such observations are not uncommon. One species in particular extends its season well into late autumn in warmer corners of our land and certainly we were untroubled by the cold until quite late in the calendar year. The creature concerned is the buff-tailed bumblebee which is quite large and so more conspicuous. Mahonia is a popular garden shrub because the huge panicles of bright yellow flowers brighten up the view when most flowers have faded away completely. So if you have a mahonia keep an eye out for bumblebees. Another advantage of this useful plant is the extended season. Mine opened during mid-October and still sported a few sprays of yellow in January.

Another possibility comes to mind. Disturbance of resting places often gives us sightings of creatures well out of their normal time of year. I have come across young bumblebee queens in the past during mid-winter when I have been working in quiet, normally untended parts of the garden. If the situation suits one such future colony creator and nest builder, others may be equally content to overwinter there. Extreme changes of weather can upset the proper rhythm of anything attempting so see out the winter with as little expenditure of energy as possible.

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A bright, sunny day which warms up a sheltered corner where peacock butterflies, for instance, are peacefully snoozing and unnoticed can wake them up. Flights into chilly air with even snow and frost on the ground are frequently launched. The need to replenish the energy so used is urgent though not always successful.

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