Staff blog: Shedding a new light on bees

Schiehallion Manager Liz Auty learns how to identify and survey bumblebees thanks to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's training day

Buff tailed bumblebees feeding on sidalcea detail

Since being a small child I have been suspicious of buzzy things that might sting me but, after spending a day with bumblebees, I now feel completely differently. I am facinated by their complicated lifestyle, their tireless hard work collecting pollen from flowers and their beauty close up.

I didn’t know they have a smooth sting that allows them to survive to sting again - unlike honeybees who die if they have to use their sting. Not that bumblebees are aggressive. They usually only sting if they are accidentally trod on or get tangled up in the washing.

During our training day in Pitlochry, led by Helen from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, we focussed on eight of the more common species and learned how to tell which caste they were from.

 Bee common carder feeding on dead nettle

Our first sighting was this common carder bee on a deadnettle.

The large queens emerge early to start the nest and only feed the first set of larvae. Once these workers hatch, they take over the running of the nest while the queen concentrates on egg laying. The workers with pollen glands on their back legs busily collect pollen to take back to the nest and feed the larvae. 

Male bees are hatched late in the season, along with a new batch of queens who all leave the nest to pair up with bees from other colonies ready to start the next generation. The males only need to feed themselves, so have no pollen glands and in some of the species they have a yellow moustache. The new queens spend time feeding up and then hibernate over the winter before starting the cycle again next spring.

Bumblebee small tube helps indentify them

We caught the bees in small tubes to help us identify them

One of the aims of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust's training day was to introduce everyone to its bee walk transect that volunteers record once a month through the summer. Walking the same route each time, all the bumblebees spotted are recorded, and it’s ok for beginners to have some unknowns on the list until they get the hang of it!

The Trust is fortunate to have a population of the rare great yellow bumblebee at Sandwood, but I have never seen one there. I was delighted to spot one on a recent visit to Tiree, but in all the excitement didn’t manage to snap a photo.

After the course I was keen to see which bees were visiting my garden and managed to capture a few on camera.

 Bumblebee male white tailed feeding on cone flowers

A male white tailed bumblebee feeding on cone flowers

While wildflowers are vital for bees, we can also help bees by providing a source of nectar and pollen in gardens and parks through the season from March to October. In early spring when the queens emerge they need to build up their energy after the winter to set up a nest, so flowers at this time of year are really important for them. Looking for bee friendly-flowers to grow in our gardens or tubs can really help and there are so many lovely plants to choose from.

I am newly enthused about our furry friends and looking forward to seeing what I can spot on Schiehallion soon, especially as the heather is all blooming at the moment.

Schiehalion heather in August

Find out more about bumblebees, bee walks and other resources at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.