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Paul Castle: Perfect time to get to know different bumblebees in the Highlands

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Making Space for Nature by Paul Castle

Great yellow bumblebee.
Great yellow bumblebee.

The hum of a bumblebee busily visiting flowers is surely one of the most iconic sounds of summertime – and yet, very sadly on the decline.

If you’ve never really paid attention to bumblebees, I would urge you to spend a little time just watching them, because any time watching bumblebees is time well spent.

Bumblebees are a key species within the natural environment, one that is extremely important for human food production. It is often estimated that one third of human food-plant pollination is undertaken by pollinating insects.

The UK has more than 4000 pollinator species including bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps and flies.

The UK alone has 24 bumblebee species, but trying to identify bumblebees can be tricky for beginners. My first port of call would be to take a look at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s website. Their Big 8 identification sheet has eight of the most commonly seen bumblebees – the buff-tailed, white-tailed, garden, heath, tree, common carder, early and red-tailed bumblebee.

Now is an ideal time to begin identifying bumblebees. In spring or early summer, the queens are on the wing along with new worker bees, and are easier to identify using the diagnostic patterns in bumblebee ID literature. Eventually the queens will stay in the nest, and workers can become worn and faded, which can really change their appearance. The later season also sees the emergence of male bumblebees, often with different colour patterns to the females.

Bumblebees are true insects and have three body parts: the head, the thorax (upper body) and the abdomen (lower body), along with six legs and four wings. The species defining colour patterns will be found on the thorax and abdomen.

At the very beginning, to make things easier, it is best to focus on trying to get your ‘eye in’ to the three simple tail (end of abdomen) colour patterns; white-tailed, ginger tailed and red-tailed bumblebees. With practice you will be able to spot the tail colour from a quick glance, even on a flying bumblebee (Top tip! Keep your head still and watch the bee as it flies around you).

Watching bumblebees feeding at flowers gives you the best chance to identify the body colour patterns. Pay particular attention to markings near the joint of the thorax and abdomen. What may appear to be just one yellow stripe, can often be two stripes, one on either body part.

This is true with the garden bumblebee and the heath bumblebee to the untrained eye. Using a mobile phone to grab some quick photos is a great way to help with identification. Or join the ranger team on one of our pollinator days for some help with ID.

North Sutherland and northern Caithness are the two last remaining areas on the mainland hosting populations of the extremely rare great yellow bumblebee, the Bombus Distinguendus.

The Farr Glebe bumblebee reserve in Bettyhill is a great place to visit in July and August to see the great yellow bumblebee feeding at the mass of wildflowers such as greater knapweed and field scabious.

Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the Highland Biological Recording Group are always happy to receive accurate records of bumblebees. They are tracking the range of the tree bumblebee. The tree bumblebee was first recorded in the UK in 2001 in the south of England, but has spread rapidly northwards, arriving in the Highlands in 2019.

With plenty of practice, and when you feel reasonably confident with your identification, you can go one step further and take part in some citizen science using your newfound skills. Accurate recording of bumblebees is key to any future conservation efforts – so why not use this as an opportunity to flex your newfound skills in a community effort to keep the Highlands buzzing?

Paul Castle, HLH countryside ranger.
Paul Castle, HLH countryside ranger.
  • Making Space for Nature is a monthly wildlife column with tips about how we can act to help wildlife in our communities. This month’s wildlife columnist is Paul Castle, High Life Highland countryside ranger for north Sutherland and north Caithness. Paul studied environmental and resource science at Salford University. He worked as a volunteer officer with British Trust for Conservation Volunteers before moving to Caithness to take on the role of north Sutherland and north Caithness countryside ranger in 2000. Paul is also a trained member of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme.

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