Working at the London Wildlife Trust, some great opportunities come your way, and the most recent one being a Bumblebee Ecology and Survey course put on by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at one of our reserves; East Reservoir Community Garden, in Hackney. Although the day started off cloudy and chilly, it soon turned into a gloriously sunny day with bumblebees galore.
It actually felt good to be sitting in what felt like a university lecture; it made me really miss all the great classes I had during my masters and undergrad, and most of all made me miss the field work that came with them.
The course was led by Sam Page, a surveyor and all round bumblebee expert, and it was great to hear all her work and projects goings on around the UK, and most importantly London, a place often underestimated when thinking about wildlife and biodiversity. We learnt that of the 245 bumblebee, bombus species, only 24 are found in the UK, and 2 of these have already gone extinct due to drastic changes in the environment. However, with strong conservation support and research, reintroductions of one of these species has now been possible (short-haired bumblebee), and there is hope yet.
But today wasn’t only about the natural history of this iconic species, but also about their ecology. We learnt that their life cycle is annual, and that except for the queens, the workers and males are born and die within the same year, essentially only living for the good of the queens they dote on. A queen will hibernate over winter, and come out of her nest, often underground in the spring, she will immediately go to feed on nectar and pollen in the nearby vicinity and return to her nest to lay several workers (always female). These workers will then travel further out to find and sustain the queen while she gradually builds up her colony; ranging from 50-400 individuals. It’s only in the late the summer that a queen will hatch males, and these are then immediately evicted, while she waits for the male evictees from other hives to fertilise next year’s brood. In the initial stages it is so vital that there are pollen and nectar supplies in plenty around where she has hibernated, as she has little energy to travel far for foraging opportunities. If she is to wake after hibernation to find that the wildflower meadow she chose to hibernate next to has now been replaced with agricultural land with little or no flowers, or even worse concrete; she can struggle to upkeep her colony, or even herself, and her failure to produce males or other queens to carry on the line essentially means the failure of her colony.
The value of bees has been estimated at a massive €14 billion to Europe’s economy, as they contribute to the majority of crop and wildflower pollination. Only recently has action been taken, although only temporary, to aid the plight of bees, by banning the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in the UK. This reduced use of such harmful chemicals should help support bees this year, and will hopefully mean a boom in numbers next year. This in turn, would really support the action of a permanent ban on chemicals that the government are not too eager to dismiss altogether.
The main aspect to the days course was bumblebee identification and handling. This was really enjoyable and surprisingly successful as we were able to identify, in just 1 hour, 7/8 of the most common bumblebee species.
– White tailed bumblebee – male
– Buff-tailed bumblebee – male, Queen
– Garden bumblebee
– Early bumblebee – male
– Common carder bee – female, male
– Red-tailed bumblebee – female, male
– Tree bumblebee – female (a species that only arrived in the UK in 2001, by natural migration)
– Some bees will cut into the base of a flower and rob the nectar, without pollinating – cheats!
– Bumblebee hair is what is coloured, not the skeleton itself
– Red-tailed bumblebees are known to invade another’s next, kill/dominate the queen, and trick colony into providing for her and her larvae by hanging out at the colony entrance and getting covered in the real queens pheromones – very clever!
– Bees have smelly feet, where they mark the flowers they have already visited with pheromones
– Bees are not aggressive, do not swarm and do not die after they sting you – it’s a myth!
– Ornamental plants often don’t produce nectar and are useless to bees
– Bee kind App is a new useful app to identify how bee friendly your garden is
Overall it was a very interesting course, and I have subsequently signed up to be a volunteer surveyor for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and will submit my findings to them on a monthly basis. Even though it was only a day course, it showed how truly straightforward surveying was, and how distinguishable the species are when you really read the identifications guides step by step. I really recommend visiting their website and getting involved; it’s such a worthy cause and really good fun.