BUMBLEBEES are showing in good numbers now in Clackmannanshire and I find it almost hypnotic watching their busy endeavours as they buzz around the garden.

They are amongst our most absorbing insects with their ‘furry’ rotund bodies and haphazard flight lending an almost comical appearance.

But behind the benign façade of busy bees bumbling amongst the flowerbeds it is all too convenient to forget just what important creatures they are to the overall health of our environment.

Many of our plants rely upon their prolific pollinating activities, and of course animals depend upon plants, either directly or indirectly, for their survival too.

So, if there are no bumblebees around, then everything goes to pot, including agricultural production to feed ourselves.

There is still much to learn about the natural history of bumblebees but what we do know is that all is not well with our populations and already two species in the UK have become extinct in the last 70 years and others have declined dramatically.

The main reasons are thought to be habitat loss and agricultural intensification.

There are 19 different species in Scotland but in Clackmannanshire the most likely ones to be encountered are the white-tailed, buff-tailed, early, garden, common carder, red-tailed and tree bumblebees.

All are attractive, but the red-tailed bumblebee is my favourite by a country mile because of the striking contrast between the red on the tip of the abdomen and the shiny blackness of the rest of the body.

Another fascinating one is the common carder bee, so named because it knits grass and moss together to make its nest on the ground.

They also tend to live most interesting lives, with most bumblebees having a similar social system to honey bees, incorporating workers, drones and a queen.

However, instead of the many thousands of individuals found in a typical honey bee hive, bumblebee colonies usually only comprise of a few hundred individuals at most.

Another key difference is that each colony exists for less than a year and dies out in autumn, with only the young, mated queens surviving over the winter in readiness for starting a new colony the following spring, which is often sited underground in a mouse hole or other crevice.

We can all play our part in helping bumblebees by ensuring there are suitable plants in our gardens to attract these fascinating insects.

Careful planning for a succession of bee-friendly flowers can bring real benefits.

For spring, the best are heather, mahonia and lungwort. In early summer, allium, thyme and meadow's cranesbill are all good, whilst in late summer lavender, aquilegia, campanula, borage and scabious work well.