Exhibit of the Week: Plight of the great yellow bumblebee

The great yellow bumblebee in the Scarborough Collections.
The great yellow bumblebee in the Scarborough Collections.

In 1957 the newly published Natural History of the Scarborough District tells us that the great yellow bumblebee was ‘particularly abundant in upland lanes towards the moors’.

Today, however, you’d have to travel around 500 miles north to find the nearest population of Bombus distinguendus. Over the last 60 years this beautiful species has seen an 80% decline in the UK, making it one of our rarest bees. Today it can only be found on the north coast of Scotland – the last mainland populations are in Caithness and Sutherland – and the Orkneys and Outer Hebrides.

The cause for this dramatic decline is simply the loss of the wildlflower meadows which were once such a common sight across the whole of the British Isles. Known as ‘machair’, these flower-rich environments are now found only in coastal areas. Machair is exceptionally rich in flowers, especially red clover, a favourite food plant for the great yellow bumblebee, providing them with a continuous supply of pollen and nectar throughout the summer months.

However, intensive farming has caused this crucial habitat to become scarcer and scarcer – to the detriment of many species, not just the great yellow bumblebee.

This attractive creature emerges from hibernation fairly late in the season compared to some, with the queen usually seen from mid-June onwards. After feeding, she will begin to search for a suitable nest site, often using abandoned mouse nests or rabbit holes.

Already pregnant after mating the previous summer, she will produce a comparatively small colony of 20 to 50 worker bees, which then collect nectar and pollen to support the nest while the queen gets on with the really important work of rearing males and daughter queens in the late summer. The males and daughter queens then mate and find a suitable hibernation spot to sleep away the winter before emerging the following June to start the whole cycle over again.

Bees have been in the news a lot recently as they are important pollinators. In this country we have over 270 species, a number of which are declining, or have even become extinct. Thankfully, though, some species are spreading. Last year, Scarborough Museums Trust staff recorded two new species for the area, the hairy-footed flower bee, and the wool carder bee, both of which are attracted to garden plants.

You can help reverse the decline of the bee population, so important for the future of our planet, by simply planting a few nectar-rich plants in your garden. And the good news is that not only will this attract bees, but also butterflies and one of our most overlooked pollinators, flies.

They may lack the glamour of the bee and the butterflies, but there are around 7,000 species of fly in the UK and some groups, such as hoverflies, are as important as bees for pollination. Spend a few hours in a garden on a sunny summer morning and you’ll be amazed by the variety of species you can see.

There are a number of Facebook groups on which some of Britain’s leading experts will help you to identify different bees from photographs, and also groups for UK hoverflies and diptera (flies in general).

And if you’re really interested, take a look at the authoritative and exhaustive Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society website: http://www.bwars.com/

Not only is it packed with information, but it will give you chance to contribute in yet another useful way – by becoming a biological recorder, and contributing sightings to help them map the various species.

The great yellow bumblebee is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.