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Bumblebee Conservation Trust urges gardeners to help save species

PUBLISHED: 11:00 15 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:23 16 September 2014

Red-tailed Queen

Red-tailed Queen

Archant

Furry, brightly-coloured and instantly recognisable, bumblebees are icons of the British summer.

They also contribute more than £400 million every year to the British economy through pollinating crops.

However, in the past 80 years, two of the 26 species in the UK have become extinct and several others are now extremely rare due to changes in agricultural methods that have largely removed wildflowers from the landscape.

As home to most of the British bumblebee species, Surrey has an important role to play in preserving the populations of these important pollinators.

The Heath bumblebee in particular thrives well in Surrey’s extensive heathlands, although it can also be found in gardens, parks and other habitats.

Now the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), which was set up in 2006 to address concerns about the plight of this endearing insect, is calling on gardeners to play their part by creating bee-friendly havens.

“Surrey is one of the best-monitored counties in the country, and supports virtually every British bumblebee species,” says Richard Comont, BBCT data monitoring officer. “The extensive heathlands are particularly good for the scarce Heath bumblebee.

“However, gardens can also be a great resource for bumblebees - the bees need flowers from March to October, and increasingly gardens are the only places they can find enough to keep going.

“Wildlife-friendly gardening is often portrayed as untidy and nettle-filled. But bumblebees’ main need is for flowers - nectar and pollen will keep them buzzing all summer.”

Summer is the time of the year when bumblebee workers stock up on pollen and nectar to feed the larvae and young bees in their growing colony. A plentiful supply of flowers will help increase the likelihood of a colony producing a new generation of bumblebees.

However, before you head for your nearest garden centre, it is important to remember that not all flowers are suitable for bumblebees.

Mass-produced plants like pansies and double begonias don’t offer much for bumblebees and other pollinators because they produce little or no pollen and nectar.

Others, such as petunias, have flower shapes that bumblebees cannot access – either because the petals form long tunnels which are too long or narrow for the bees to feed from or because they have multiple tightly-packed heads.

It is also best to avoid species that have a habit of escaping from gardens and invading wild habitats nearby, for example, rhododendron and Himalayan balsam.

Instead opt for plants which provide plenty of nectar and pollen but also have a variety of flower shapes to cater for the needs of different bee species.

For long-tongued bumblebees – including the Moss carder bees, Common carder bees and Garden bumblebees – go for plants such as catmint, honeysuckle, foxglove and red clover.

Short-tongued bumblebees, including the Heath bumblebee, Buff-tailed bumblebee and Early bumblebee, will feed on plants from the small-flowered pea family, harebell, heather, white clover and raspberry.

Other popular blooms are allium - which can grow in almost any type of soil, and borage - which provides both nectar for bumblebees and edible flowers for the gardener. Herb gardens with thyme, marjoram and lavender are also fantastic for bees.

The greater the number of suitable flowering plants in your garden the better, but as a rule of thumb you should aim for at least two kinds of bee-friendly plant for each flowering period.

For late-emerging species like the Heath bumblebee, it is also important to have plants which are in flower into October.

As part of its Spring into Action campaign, BBCT has produced a special resource pack to encourage garden centres to promote bee-friendly flowers throughout the seasons.

The pack also serves as a useful guide to gardeners, giving them a range of plants to buy from spring and early summer - when the queen bees are emerging from hibernation, to late summer and autumn when bumblebee nests are producing new queens.

You can also use the trust’s BeeKind tool to find out how bee-friendly your garden is. You will be given a score on the flowers already in your garden and advice on what else to plant: beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org

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BeeWalk

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is looking for volunteers to help them monitor these much-loved pollinators by signing up to its BeeWalk project - a national recording scheme to build up a more accurate picture of bumblebee populations across the UK.

All you need is a spare hour every month to walk a fixed route of about a mile. Having recorded the bumblebees you see on your walk, you then enter the information on the trust’s website.

BBCT data monitoring officer Richard Comont says it’s not necessary to be an expert in bumblebees to take part.

“Even if you can only confidently identify a few species and mark the remainder as unknown, you are making a valuable contribution to bumblebee conservation – and you’ll be amazed how quickly you can pick up ID skills once you start looking,” he says.

In general, most people will only see what are often referred to as the ‘Big Eight’ common bumblebees.

These include the Buff-tailed, Red-tailed and White-tailed bumblebees as well as the Garden bumblebee and Common carder bumblebee.

If you do come across a rare species or a bee you don’t recognise, you can take some photographs and upload them to a special BeeWatch website, run by BBCT in partnership with Aberdeen University. Here you will be guided through some easy questions to help identify the bumblebee in your photo, which is then verified by an expert.

“If you’re lucky enough to see a rare bumblebee, please do try and photograph it – range changes for rare species are significant and it is important to verify sightings, so please don’t be offended if the sighting is checked,” says Comont. “Bees can be tricky to identify from photos, but it at least helps rule species in or out.”

As well as the BeeWatch website, information on bumblebee identification can be found on the trust’s website. Alternatively, you can attend an ID workshop or take part in a guided BeeWalk.

Nick Withers, who lives in Oxted, East Surrey, is in his third year of doing BeeWalks and has volunteered to take interested groups out with him.

“I keep honeybees and four or five years ago I decided that I didn’t know enough about other bees so I started volunteering with a project down in Kent. I joined BBCT and then I heard about the BeeWalks and thought I would do one locally.”

He worked out a route close to his home which takes in low-lying land either side of a small river and some fields.

“It’s not very good from a wildflower point of view,” he says. “Last year there was a lot of clover and there’s a big bramble patch at the end. The way bumblebees behave in the rather sparse landscape is quite interesting. I walk around and some months I hardly see anything. Then you get a sudden hotspot like the bramble patch. Bumblebees come from all around to populate that – you can get 40 to 50 bumblebees foraging in a 20-metre stretch. Then you can go across a field and see one specimen of plant with one bee.”

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READ ON
Beekeeping for beginners with The Surrey Beekeeper

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