Making a beeline for bilberry queen
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. org.uk 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 www.bwars.com.
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 trust.org.uk.
●● A buff-tailed bee in flight