Species safe for another year

A bumble bee.
A bumble bee.

I SAW my first bumblebee on February 26 this year, a week earlier than usual. She should have known better: the temperature was only 11 degrees C but she may have got away with it.

At least by the middle of March things started to brighten up a bit until we had an eight day summer at the end of March and Scotland sweltered with its record high of 23 degrees.

All the butterflies came out then or were committed to emerge only to struggle out of their cocoons into the cold and wet of April.

The photograph here by Brian Henham shows a good old queen going about her business with diligence and commitment for the benefit of the human race. What will we do without her when she retires?

One glance shows how hard she has worked. Her wings are becoming frayed with the hundreds of miles she has flown already, while the pollen sacs are filled to bursting on her legs like the trousers on the Turkish dancers in Nutcracker as she burrows into a flower.

She is Bombus terrestris, one of five or six species on which we depend for our lives as well. Now news that these wild bees as well as crop foraging honey bees are in danger gives us all serious concern for the future.

First the varroa mite is attacking colonies, second, there is less habitat available for these wild bees in which to live. Third, it may be that pesticides used to safeguard oilseed rape seed may be affecting the strength and abilities of bees. Since they pollinate one third of our food crops, we have to discover what to do very quickly.

In years past I have watched bumblebees pollinating the oilseed rape crops at Langford Farm near Lavant. By looking through binoculars across one hundred acre field I made a count of bumblebee workers flying across the line of sight and made a multiplication for the rest of the field that gave the amazing total of a hundred thousand bumblebees at work. Their nests were in the thick hedgerows. Those field boundaries then were vital to that crop. Farmers would do well to appreciate the point. And we await more research on the pesticides and their effects.

Meanwhile, the rotten April/May weather killed off most of the queen bumblebees here, and I have not known such a terrible destruction since 1977 which was the wet year that followed the ‘76 drought.

Bumblebees today have the added problem of badgers digging out their nests. Some dispute that badgers can affect bumblebee numbers but I am not so sure. I find scores of nests eaten up and that has to affect the population. Again, more research is needed.

At least some butterflies made use of the brief early spring fine weather and those included Duke of Burgundy fritillary, grizzled skipper and dingy skipper. Orangetips did fairly well too with a few females seen laying their eggs on cuckoo flowers (maids of the meadow: Cardamine pratensis) on April 21 so hopefully that species is safe for another year at least.

Richard Williamson