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Being a BeeWalker

This week I have a special guest, Helen,  writing a blog article about her experiences as a BeeWalker - one of our volunteers who conducts regular bumblebee surveys. Read on to find out what she's been up to...

On a sunny June day, under billowing white clouds, the meadows beyond the house are a sight to see.  Since last month, when bees buzzed among the bluebells and clambered over spires of yellow archangel, they have erupted into a mass of waving tall grasses and wildflowers.  Buttercups and ox-eye daisies dance in the breeze above a carpet of red clover.  It’s a perfect spot for bumblebee watching.

Bees have always fascinated me, and the more I heard about the challenges they face, the more I wanted to do something.  Becoming a member of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust some five or so years ago has helped bring me closer to this cause and highlighted opportunities to get involved in the effort to support our bumblebees.  Eager to register as BeeWalk volunteer, I spent the last couple of summers honing my identification skills, until this year I felt ready to take part.

And so each month I trace a chosen transect recording the bees that I see.  My walk begins in the meadows, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, yielded the most bee sightings of this month’s walk - a reminder that the decline in bumblebee numbers in recent years coincides with the loss of so much of our flower-rich grassland.  Here red-tailed bumblebees provided a straightforward start to my observations, but soon I was desperately willing a number of white-tailed bees to slow down so I could decipher whether they were Bombus terrestris, Bombus lucorum or Bombus hortorum.

The next section of my transect, a hollow lane formed by overhanging branches of elder, hawthorn and hazel, was devoid of bees until its very end.  A common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)  and a worker Garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) enjoyed the sunshine on a patch of nettles and remnants of green alkanet.

Spurred on by the promise of flower rich gardens ahead, I turned into the lane which makes up the third section of my transect; but the count was disappointing (perhaps the residents need to check the BeeKind tool on the BBCT’s website?).  A single tall thistle plant hosted the only bees - several jostling diners, mainly Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum), all bumping into one another in their feeding frenzy.

The final section of my transect is marked by swathes of green alkanet, brambles and frothy cow parsley.  I was greeted by a number of foraging Tree bumblebees and worker Early bumblebees (Bombus pratorum), before recording a common carder bee at the very end of the track.

Identifying the bees is the most challenging part of BeeWalk, but also the most fascinating and rewarding. True, I must look quite a sight, crouching in the long grass, notepad and camera in hand, gently cursing as my camera refuses to focus and yet another bee gets away without being captured on film.  But gradually as each piece of information clicks into place – the different colours, the presence or absence of pollen baskets, the length and shape of antennae – my sense of achievement grows.

I return home with all this information and spend some time checking my observations in preparation for entering my sightings on to the Beewalk website.  Collectively the data gathered by BeeWalk volunteers will help the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to establish and monitor the numbers and distribution of the different species. In turn, by building up this picture, it will be possible to detect signs of population declines. 
This month, stumped by a couple of tricky bees, I uploaded some of my photos to the BeeWatch website for verification, so I’ll wait for news from the experts before completing my record for June.

Tips for beginner ID’ers:

Make plenty of notes out in the field – arriving at a conclusive ID while BeeWalking can be difficult, so try to capture as much information as you can about each bee that you see.  I use my notes to double check my conclusions at home before entering my sightings on to the BeeWalk website.

Take as many photographs as possible – again these will help you to study each bee’s characteristics more carefully back home, and will make it possible to get others’ opinions.

Refer to the many sources of excellent information available on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s website – the photo gallery, identification guide, downloadable field guide app, forums, and BeeWatch are all incredibly useful.

Ask for help – there are many experts who are generous with their knowledge and will gladly assist you.  Twitter has proved a particularly good way to connect with others who are happy to help with IDs.

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