The Yorkshire Moors - home to the Bilberry bumblebee

Published: Tuesday 19th Sep 2017

September is a great month for getting out and about and Laura from the Bumblebee Conversation Trust invites you to learn more about Yorkshire's rarer species. 

Home to swathes of rolling green Dales, the brooding North York moors and picturesque fishing towns along a dramatic coastline, Yorkshire is often called “God’s Own County”. Not only does Yorkshire boast some of the UK’s most spectacular scenery, but also a fascinating history smattered with Viking invasions, Norman Conquests and a fierce civil war.

Nature lovers flock to the coast to see the remarkable marine life, with whales, porpoises, dolphins and grey seals, in addition to vast seabird colonies of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, there is an abundance of wildlife to please any ocean-lover. Keen birdwatchers might brave brisk winds at the saltmarshes to observe the goings on of over-wintering wading birds, or to catch a glimpse of the elusive hen harrier. However, here at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, we are interested in a smaller, but no less charismatic creature – a distinctive bumblebee with lemon stripes and a red bottom. The expansive heather moorland in Yorkshire is home to one of the UK’s most scarce bumblebees, the Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola).

Bumblebees are icons of summer and pollinate many of our crops and wildflowers, but over recent decades their populations have crashed with some species already extinct or fighting extinction. Formerly widespread in the UK, the Bilberry bumblebee is now sadly declining and becoming increasingly patchily distributed. With a certain penchant for altitude, upland moors and mountains are one of the few places in the UK where the rare Bilberry bumblebee is found. Here they have an important ecosystem role to play in supporting the upland plants – with a particular preference for the pollen from its namesake, the Bilberry.

The lifecycle of a queen Bilberry bumblebee begins in spring, when rising temperatures awaken her from hibernation. Energy reserves depleted, her first task is to replenish them by feeding on nectar from nearby flowers, before the all-important search for a nest site in which to lay her first brood of eggs. Often settling in tussocky grass or just under the soil surface, these precious eggs are incubated until the white grub-like larvae emerge; they feed on pollen tirelessly collected by the queen from nearby flowers. After fattening up for around two weeks, the larvae spin a cocoon, and make the transformation into adult bumblebees. Over the summer the offspring produced will switch from female workers to males and new queens to begin the cycle all over again. At this time of year in particular you can expect to see newly hatched queens, vibrant in colour, and a welcome contrast to the sun bleached workers coming to the end of their days. Their job is to find a mate and prepare for solo winter hibernation.

Grandparent and child looking at a Bilberry bumblebee

Here at the Trust we have over 1,200 registered, dedicated bumblebee-spotting volunteers who give up their precious time, venture into nature and collect data for our national recording scheme, BeeWalk. From March to October, our fantastic volunteers walk their chosen transect each month, identifying and counting the bumblebees they see – a wonderful excuse to take advantage of that spectacular Yorkshire scenery on sunny days. We use the information collected to monitor how bumblebee populations change through time, and detect early warning signs of population declines. All data contributes to the vital long-term monitoring of bumblebee population changes in response to modifications in land-use and climate change and, ultimately, informs how we manage the countryside more effectively for the UK’s pollinators.

The advantage of trying to spot and ID a Bilberry bumblebee is that the males, workers, and queens all have the same colouring. This striking species has two bright yellow bands on the thorax (the bee’s top half) but none on the abdomen (bottom half), with the rear band of the thorax often less pronounced. Not to be confused with a male Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius), the orange-red tail always extends over more than half of the abdomen. Keen-eyed nature lovers, perhaps accompanied by budding entomologists, are highly recommended to take the opportunity whilst in Yorkshire to brave the moors, and try to spot one of its colourful buzzing residents.

Taking photos of interesting bees you see is a useful activity – in particular, it is a great way to confirm your sightings, especially with scarcer species. However, even the most accomplished of wildlife photographers may find bumblebees a difficult subject to capture – often by the time you’ve focussed the camera they’ve disappeared to the next flower. If you’re looking to take a photo for a later ID, you will find that bumblebees aren’t always particularly accommodating. They have handy ID features scattered all over their bodies, but typically, when on flowers, they curl up, hide their heads and the tips of their tails, and tuck their legs in, concealing some of the most useful ID features. The best way to make sure your mystery bee is identifiable from photographs is to take several, from different angles, showing as many ID areas as possible. Any interesting critter you see during your moorland explorations can be uploaded to irecord, where it can be checked by experts, identified, and made available to support research and decision-making at local and national levels.

A trip to the countryside, breathing in the fresh air and observing the goings on of wildlife, can be a welcome tonic to our often hectic lives. Therefore, whatever your interest in visiting Yorkshire may be, above all, we hope that you allow yourself a moment to truly relax, immerse yourself in the local nature and spot something you’ve never seen before.

Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola)