Bombus pascuorum – Male
My favourite bumblebee at the moment is also our commonest, the Common Carder Bee Bombus pascuorum. The photo above shows a particularly handsome, well-marked, somewhat foxy-looking male. Male bees can be handled safely in the field, like this, if held very gently, but if you are in any doubt as to the sex, don’t do it.
This is a species that can vary enormously in appearance and size, in all castes, with some female workers being very tiny indeed. For me this is part of the fascination. Pale-haired specimens can be confused with the rarer carders B. humilis or B. muscorum and may need determining (particularly males) using genitalia extraction. To get to species (useful if you are collecting scientific data) its often necessary to key out a specimen under a stereomicroscope.
For a while now I’ve been thinking I really ought to focus on one group of insects. I really love beetles, Coleoptera, but I don’t find as many as I should. It seems of late that the Hymenoptera (Bees, Ants and Wasps) seem to have chosen me, especially the Bees. This is partially due to where I live, right on the edge of Salisbury Plain – a huge open area of ancient flower-rich grassland and the fact that the Plain holds some particularly rare examples like the Shrill Carder Bee Bombus sylvarum, the Armed Nomad Bee, Nomada armata and the Sainfoin Bee Melitta dimidiata.
But it’s a tough group and as indicated earlier a lot of bees aren’t identifiable beyond family in the field.
Yet in many respects identifying bees, at least in the UK, has just got a tiny bit easier with the long-awaited publication of a Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland by Steven Falk and Illustrated by Richard Lewington. This is the first major work on bees since The Hymenoptera Aculeate of the British Islands by Edward Saunders in 1896.
More info about naturalist Steven Falk and his new book here.
It’s been many months since I last posted. One Monday morning I went in to work to find that someone higher up the food chain had decided to close our department – I’m now working freelance. Inevitably time has been short while I focus on my new enterprise (it’s gone rather well so far) but I have made time to continue to lead my monthly Beewalks on Salisbury Plain in Areas 15 on behalf of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
Although the Shrill Carder Bee Bombus sylvarum has remained elusive we have encountered another rare bumblebee. From July we started observing specimens of what at first glance looked to be small Bombus terrestris or Bombus lucorum female workers but… the first yellow band on the thorax was just a little bit too lemony and the tail although predominantly white had a peachey tinge separating it from the black. Thinking it might be the Broken-belted Bumblebee Bombus Soroeensis we took photos (see photo of male above) and posted these onto the BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society) Facebook page but at best the overall consensus was ‘possibly’.
On my next encounter, to get a positive determination, I kept a specimen so I could look at it in more detail under my stereomicroscope and key it out. I also allowed Marc Taylor who’d joined us for the day to take a specimen and after he’d examined the sting sheath confirmed he thought it was soroeensis. (Marc is a much more experienced amateur entomologist than I, particularly in regard to things like dissection). I was pretty sure it was too as features on the mandibles and antenna looked good but as I was coincidentally visiting the Natural History Museum in London the very next day I had the good fortune to get David Notton, Head Curator, Hymenoptera, to take a look and he confirmed it was indeed soroeensis. After a celebratory skip, hop and jump I agreed to donate my specimen to the museum for DNA research as the NHM has very few specimens from Salisbury Plain.
It’s rather scarce outside of Scotland and until fairly recently Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire was thought to have the only population of this species in southern England (although new records have come in from the Dungeness area where it was previously unrecorded). Most records from the Plain have come from further East around the Bulford area and we do not appear to have any records this far West in the Centre. But according to George Else who has been recording bees on the Plain since the early 80s ‘it is is very widely distributed over the Plain and locally abundant in a number of locations.’ I’m sure he’s right, it may just be that due to the difficulty in identifying it in the field it is simply under-recorded.
In regard to the photo, that must be a bit of a rarity too as the bumblebee (now confirmed as a male, B. soroeensis) is nectaring on Tuberous Thistle Cirsium tuberosum an even rarer perennial only found in one other location outside Wiltshire. The good news is this year we’ve found good numbers of Tuberous Thistle in Area 15.