Bees, common and rare

Picture of a talk on bumblebees

About twenty people turned up in the glorious sunshine today to attend a fantastic talk at Tablehurst Farm by Nikki Gammans on bumblebees. Nikki is a biologist who is the project leader of the short-haired bumblebee reintroduction project, and is passionate and eloquent about her specialism.

There are about 250 species of bees in Britain, of which one is the honeybee, and some 225 are solitary bees (ie they do not live in colonies), such as the mining bees and leaf-cutter bees. There are currently 24 species of bumblebee, of which seven are common, and these were the ones we were mostly looking out for on our walk.

However, about a third of our bees are threatened in some way, mostly due to habitat loss over the last sixty years or so; about 97 per cent of wild flower meadow has been brought into cultivation since the war, and with it a phenomenally rich and varied habitat has been lost, together with the diversity of things that lived there. This has certainly contributed to the extinction of some of our native species, and is why many of the remaining bumblebee species are so rare.

The bees have varying lengths of tongue, which enables different species to feed on different plants species throughout the season; consequently, if those plant species are much reduced, then the bee population declines too, and is no longer around to pollinate many of our crops.

Nevertheless, we are lucky in the south east, since several rare species are still found here, if you know where to look. The Rye Harbour nature reserve is home to many of these rarities, as is the RSPB reserve in Dungeness. That is also the site of Nikki’s work; the Short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) was last seen in this country in 1988 and officially declared extinct here in 2001. Several years ago, though, a plan emerged to try and reintroduce it, which also required intervention in local landscape management, so much of Nikki’s work is with local farmers to encourage the development of suitable habitat in the area. This has progressed very well, and has just released the third batch of queens collected from Sweden.

The reintroduction project has been getting lots of good press coverage, not least because of Nikki’s campaigning enthusiasm, and is contributing greatly to educating people generally about the importance of our bees, and the habitats they occupy. You can read more about the project on its website, and on Facebook.

Suitable habitats are not just limited to farmland, either; we can all improve the bee-friendliness of our gardens by growing more of the flowers that bees actually like, and avoiding the cultivars that are useless to them. You can read more about which species of plants are best for bees on the project website, and also use the Bee Kind app on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website.

Picture of a group of people looking for bees

Out in the field, searching for bumblebees

There were lots of questions after Nikki’s talk, which continued as we walked a short distance around the farm catching and identifying bees. Nikki’s new book The Bumblebees of Kent is due out in a couple of weeks, and sounds fantastic; it will be ideal for those of us in East Sussex as well. Nikki is also running a whole day course on bumblebees at Rye on 3 August for Sussex Wildlife Trust; I can strongly recommend it since I went on it last year.

Below are pictures (mostly mine, a couple are from iSpot) of the common British bees. The pages on bee identification on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s website are really useful, too, and each heading links to more pictures of each species.

Buff-tailed bumblebee

One of the very common bees:

Picture of Buff-tailed bumblebee

Bombus terrestris

White-tailed bumblebee

This can easily be confused with the previous one, though my picture is in fact of a male, which has a yellow face:

Picture of White-tailed bumblebee

Bombus lucorum

Red-tailed bumblebee

This is fairly easy to identify with its black thorax and red tail. This is one I found on the heath on Ashdown Forest and you can see it is host to lots of small mites.

Picture of Red-tailed bumblebee

Bombus lapidarius

Tree bumblebee

This is a new species, which wasn’t in this country until 2001, but has now spread very widely and is extremely common. Unlike the other common bees it nests in trees.

Picture of Tree bumblebee

Bombus hypnorum

Common carder bee

This is also very distinctive and is much more yellowy-orange throughout. They build nests in long grass by knitting it together.

Picture of Common carder bee

Bombus pascuorum

This one was taken in August and has lost much of the hair on the thorax, so is much more black and shiny.

Picture of a Common carder bee

Bombus pascuorum

Early bumblebee

We only saw one of these today, since the first brood has now just about gone.

Picture of Early bumblebee

Bombus pratorum

Garden bumblebee

And this was the one common bumblebee we didn’t find today.

Picture of Garden bumblebee

Bombus hortorum



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