A beginner's guide to spotting bumblebees

A new book aims to make it easier to name and identify the 21 species of the insect in Britain, says Michael McCarthy
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After butterflies, they're probably Britain's most popular insects. Everybody seems to like bumblebees.

After butterflies, they're probably Britain's most popular insects. Everybody seems to like bumblebees.

They're boldly coloured, they appear cuddly in a hairy sort of way - although with their sting, you wouldn't want to cuddle them - they're obviously hard-working, and they're an inveterate sign of spring. We like the sight of them, we like their drowsy buzzing, and we don't feel they have any of the menace of their relations, wasps.

Yet although many people could name and identify at least half a dozen of our 60-odd butterfly species, not one in 10,000 could do the same for any of the 21 types of bumblebee buzzing around Britain. Most of us wouldn't even know there was more than one. Who, for example, can tell the garden bumblebee, Bombus hortorum, from the buff-tailed bumblebee, B. terrestris?

This may start to change, with the publication of the first comprehensive photographic field guide to British bumblebees. It offers a brightly original way of separating the different species, instead of the usual method employed by entomologists for identification: killing them and putting them under a microscope. It displays a colour chart showing the different patterns of colour bands on the bee's thorax (its front half) and abdomen (its back half).

When used with adjoining charts showing the head shape of each species, its typical habitat and the time of year when it appears - not to mention remarkable colour photographs by Ted Benton - it offers the best way yet for working out which bumblebee is which in the flowerbed.

The most important reason for doing so, say the authors, the bee experts Mike Edwards and Martin Jenner, is because British bumblebee species are declining. One of them, the short-haired B. subterraneus, has become extinct.

"Over the past two decades, populations of some of the rarer species have seriously declined, and even the commoner ones are not as numerous as they were," they write. "This has given cause for alarm as they are important pollinators of wild and garden flowers, fruit trees and some crops. Bumblebee populations have crashed for a number of reasons and we need to know more about these fascinating insects."

Their guide, they say, is for people from all walks of life and aims to create a greater awareness and knowledge of bumblebees, as the more data that is available, the better the insects can be conserved. The main problem seems to be loss of habitat, especially flower-rich open grasslands which have disappeared because of modern farming methods.

The guide has been produced with support from English Nature, the Government's wildlife advisory body, which was surprised at the interest shown by the public when it published a leaflet listing garden plants that provide food for bees. Dr David Sheppard, English Nature's authority on bees, said: "This book is the only one that introduces new information and corrects old mistakes and will hopefully help provide us with up-to-date information about bumblebee populations in the future." English Nature is campaigning to use farm subsidies to pay farmers to help provide more foraging for bees.

The guide's originality lies in its simplicity, as previous guides have been aimed at experts. "Traditional taxonomic guides are quite slow to use," said Mr Jenner, a science marketing consultant and former secretary of the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society. "We wanted something quick and easy. Pop the bumblebee into a test tube and have a good look for the presence and number of yellow bands on its thorax. Then cross refer with patterns on the abdomen. Using the colour chart allows you to quickly identify most species."

Bumblebees form a separate genus, or group, with some forming a specialised sub-group known as cuckoo bumblebees, which take over nests of other species. They are different from the honeybee, the single species Apis mellifera, which produces large amounts of honey for its colony. Bumblebees produce only a small amount, when a colony is founded by a queen.

"Field Guide to Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland" is published by Ocelli and costs £9.99 plus £1.25 postage and packaging. It can be obtained through book stores or www.ocelli.co.uk


* Step one Look for presence of and number of yellow bands on thorax and find on colour chart

* Step two Cross-check with pattern on abdomen and accompanying notes on colour chart

* Step three Confirm identification with photographs and species accounts