Saturday, 22 February 2014

First queen bumblebee of the year

On a mild almost spring-like day this week I saw my first queen bumblebee of the year. It whizzed by, giving me no chance to practice my identification skills. Later that day I found myself transcribing the phrase ‘Saw a big wild bee’ from a diary entry dated 4th February 1882. I could be no more accurate than a diarist living well over a century ago, who did not have access to the huge array of bumblebee identification material now available to the interested observer of nature.

‘Bees’ have been much in the news in recent years. Everyone likes them, no one likes the idea that modern life is eliminating them and we know we really need them. Politicians and environmental charities have come up with a variety of initiatives to help them, which usually involve planting bee-friendly plants; places where bees of different kinds can come together to share in a feast of nectar or gather basket-loads of pollen.

A story on Inside Science (Radio 4) this week raised the terrifying spectre that these banquets for bees might prove to be bonanzas for two species of bee parasite, which appear to be able to spread from honeybees to our wild bumblebees. We can’t prove that the diseases are spread from honeybees to bumblebees, the scientist interviewed said, but this is likely.

The project had established that the parasites could spread from honey bees to bumblebees in the laboratory. To find out if this was happening in the field, honeybees and bumblebees were collected at the same flower-rich sites across the country, and tested for parasites. High infestations of parasites in honey bees, along with lower levels in bumblebees, were thought to indicate spread from the former to the latter.
I find it surprising that the researchers did not look at parasite numbers in different species of bumblebees. Some bumblebees sip nectar from the same flowers that honeybees use, but others, for reasons of morphology, such as extremely long tongues, or adaptation, do not. The latter should therefore not be exposed to the same opportunities for infection as the former. Would this not be a simple way to test the theory?

My diarist from 1882 well knew the difference between honeybees – he describes going ‘after dark to see a big skep of bees put down’ – and wild bees. The former were the now extinct western black bee which is these days often described as ‘native’, although that is a moot point.  Bumblebees are now part of the bee fraternity which we are encouraged to conserve. I hope it won’t be long before natural pollinator bees like lawn bees, and other pollinators like hoverflies, join the club of insects with initiatives to conserve them.

This blogpost was contributed by James Robertson, editor of Natur Cymru.

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