Mak­ing a bee­line for bil­berry queen

Macclesfield Express - - WILDLIFE -

VA­RI­ETY is the spice of life, which makes my job very spicy in­deed.

One day I am on a Gruf­falo hunt with our Manch­ester moss­lands team in Ir­lam, the next I am look­ing for rare bees in a lovely val­ley just up the M61.

I would love to give you a de­scrip­tion of the Gruf­falo and its habi­tat, but let’s just say it was a great way to get fam­i­lies in­ter­ested in the work of the Wildlife Trust in Manch­ester.

How­ever, I am happy to speak about a lovely day at White Cop­pice, search­ing for the bil­berry bum­ble­bee and, in par­tic­u­lar, the queen of the species.

About 20 of us were un­der the guid­ance of bee ex­pert Ben Har­g­reaves, he is work­ing on a project call Plan Bee – clever.

Bees have been tak­ing a bit of a bat­ter­ing over the years thanks to the re­moval of wild­flower mead­ows and hedgerows.

The Wildlife Trust and Plan Bee are bat­tling to re­verse this trend be­cause bees are so im­por­tant pol­li­nat­ing our plants and our crops.

The bil­berry bum­ble­bee is just one of 25 types of bum­ble­bee in the UK and it is rea­son­ably rare in the north west. Ben’s plan was to dis­cover if the bees lived in White Cop­pice and then work with land own­ers to im­prove the habi­tat for the in­sects.

Us­ing bis­cuits as an ex­am­ple, Ben ex­plained the dif­fer­ences be­tween the bil­berry and other types of bum­ble­bee, like the white-tailed and the buff-tailed.

He said: “It’s like dip­ping a bis­cuit in tea or dip­ping some­thing in paint. Most bees look like they’ve been dipped in paint, the bil­berry bum­ble­bee has been dunked.”

What Ben was say­ing was that the bee has a dis­tinc­tive or­angey-red back and two ‘cin­der tof­fee’ coloured hoops fur­ther up to­wards its head. It is also a bit smaller than a lot of bum­ble­bees.

One of our other ex­perts, Peter, sug­gested that it also has a slightly higher buzz, but that would be dif­fi­cult to hear un­less you had other bees as a com­par­i­son. We can tell the dif­fer­ences in bat calls with bat de­tec­tors so why can’t we in­vent a bee de­tec­tor?

Any­way we spent a good cou­ple of hours look­ing for wil­low trees and bil­ber­ries and came up with 29 sight­ings of four types of bee, but no bil­berry bum­ble­bees.

Wan­der­ing back to our cars for sand­wiches, we no­ticed a tree less than 30 yards from where we started and guess what? There was a bil­berry bum­ble­bee and it was a rarely-seen queen.

It was like an adventure story with a happy end­ing – true tale of for­ti­tude and never giv­ing up.

Any­way the bil­berry bum­ble­bees then turned up on the next three wil­lows we saw and of­fered a great chance for ev­ery­one in the group to get a close-up view.

They are cer­tainly dis­tinc­tive. You can spy that or­ange-coloured back as they fly past. And th­ese not-so-com­mon bees are be­ing seen more and more in peo­ple’s gar­dens. Look out and you may be lucky enough to see one.

If you spot an un­usual bee or in­sect send a pic­ture to info@lanc­swt. or the Lan­cashire Wildlife Trust Face­book and Twit­ter (@lanc­swildlife) pages.

To get more in­for­ma­tion on the many in­sects in the UK look at the BWARS: Bees Wasps and Ants Record­ing So­ci­ety web­site at

To sup­port the work of the Wildlife Trust for Lan­cashire, Manch­ester and North Mersey­side text WILD09 with the amount you want to do­nate to 70070. For more in­for­ma­tion about Cheshire Wildlife Trust call 01948 820728 or go to cheshirewil­dlife

Alan Wright

●● A buff-tailed bee in flight

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