Specimen of the Week 261: Bombus
By Dean W Veall, on 14 October 2016
Dean Veall here. My specimen of the week is one that was a feature of the summer but will now become a less common sight as the winter approaches. It’s a specimen that represents some 275 species found across the genus Bombus and of which 24 call the UK home. This week’s specimen of the week is….
** Bumblebee (Bombus sp.)**
1). Bees, ants and wasps
Bees belong to of the third largest order of insects known as Hymenoptera which includes wasps, ants and sawflies and includes a whopping 150,000 known species. This specimen is what many people think ‘bees’ are, but species belonging to the genus Bombus are the bumblebees. Bees in the wider sense are an incredibly diverse group and some of the most commonly known include honeybees, diggerbees, carpenter bees and orchard bees. Bumblebees are similar to other sorts of bee that are social and they form colonies with a single queen, however, bumblebee colonies tend to be smaller with as few as 50 individuals. Generally, bumblebees are larger and hairier than other bees with the extra insulation given by the hair-like ‘fuzz’ allowing them to be suited to colder climates.
2). UK bee comeback
In the UK there are 24 different species of bumblebee, however, 80 years ago this numbered 26 with 2 species since going extinct. One of those was the short-haired bumblebee, which disappeared from here in the in the 1980’s but was once widespread across the south of England and its range stretched from Cornwall to Yorkshire. The decline began with the loss of the wildflower-rich grassland habitats short-haired bumblebees relied on. However, in 2009 a a project backed by Natural England, RSPB, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Hymettus, re-introduced queen short-haired bumblebees at the RSPB Dungeness reserve in Kent. The project has been a success with the bumblebee becoming established with worker bees sighted during a census in 2013.
3). Feeding us
Many of our commercial crops; tomatoes, apples, peas and strawberries, are pollinated by insects – a service that is estimated to value £400 million per annum (based on the concept of humans having to replace those pollination services). Bumblebees play a key part in that service, as they transfer pollen between flowers in their search for sweet nectar. This idea is further explored in UCL Museum’s newest exhibition in UCL Culture’s Octagon exhibition, Cabinets of Consequence. Working with curators within UCL Museums and Collections, artists Helena Hunt and Mark Peter Wright explore the rights of the bee and create a display considering a world without these important pollinators. The exhibition is free, to find out how to visit head to cabinetsofconsequence.org.
4). Bumblees at risk
Here in the UK bumblebees are one of our most threated group of animals with seven of the 24 species in decline. The main cause of this decline has been change to the countryside. Changes in agricultural techniques have meant that there are far fewer wildflowers in the landscape than there used to be, reducing the foraging grounds available to bumblebee species. Considering their services to agriculture this decline is particularly troubling. There are some ‘interesting’ theories regarding their decline, from the bizarre (returning to their home planet) to the more serious (colony collapse disorder), but change in agricultural practice is playing a clear role in their decline. Visit bumblebeeconservation.org to find out more and maybe get involved.
Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology