After several days of hot June sunshine, the weather broke on Friday with thunder and torrential rain, and the forecast for the Saturday was not much better. So we were a bit apprehensive when 15 participants from both the Lancashire and Yorkshire sides of the border arrived at Stephen Park (Gisburn Forest) on a gloomy overcast Saturday morning to learn about bees and ‘Beewalks’ in the field.
We need not have worried. Tanya St Pierre from the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust introduced us to the ‘Meadow Links’ project in the Dales, and gave us an excellent presentation on bumblebees in particular – their habits, life cycles and how to tell apart the different species. Of 250 bees native to Britain, only 25 are bumblebees (belonging to the genus Bombus), and these include the ‘cuckoo’ bees, whose females lay their eggs in the nests of other kinds of bees, rather like the cuckoo does with other birds. Tanya has been working with volunteers from Ilkley U3A on ‘Beewalk’ surveys, in order to record bumblebees in a systematic way.
Most of the rest of our British bees are so-called solitary bees. Ben Hargreaves of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust brought with him a good collection of mounted bees, many from Manchester Museum but uncatalogued, including some of the solitary species, which he has painstakingly identified and labelled. Although less well known than bumblebees, several kinds of solitary bees, including mining bees, mason bees and flower bees, are actually quite common in gardens and can often be seen on country walks.
Carol Edmundson from Edge Hill University explained the purpose and techniques of the ‘Beewalk’ procedure that forms the basis of her research for a Master’s degree, and hoped to train volunteer ‘Beewalkers’ to assist her with this work. The Beewalk is a transect or set route along which the surveyor walks at a steady pace, recording any bumblebees they see, identifying them where possible, and noting which kinds of flowers they visit most.
We then ventured outside to see if we could find some bees – and did so almost straight away. In fact, during a short walk along the Forest rides, we saw quite a lot of bees including at least five species of bumblebee, as well as one cuckoo bee, and even a hoverfly (Volucella bombylans) that mimics bumblebees. After a pause at Bottom Laithe flushes, where Bird’s-eye Primrose (Primula farinosa) and Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) were putting on a good show, we continued as far as Dalehead church. On the way back to Stephen Park, we tried our hand at recording the bees we saw along our transect. We learned that identification is not always easy – in particular, telling White-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) from Buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) can be quite tricky in the field (even for the experts!). Most of the bees we saw on this return journey seemed to be attracted to Brambles – even though very few bramble flowers were actually open. Undeterred, on our return several volunteers signed up to help Carol with her transects in the Forest of Bowland. And then, just as we were leaving, it started to rain again…
Our thanks go to Ben Hargreaves, Carol Edmundson, and especially Tanya St Pierre without whom we could not have run the event. Thanks also to Martin Colledge of the Forestry Commission.