A few months ago, the news was filled with stories about intelligent bumblebees. New research showed that they could learn to pull strings and play football. As a ‘bee’ person I was interested, but I had a strange feeling that I was not allowed to be interested – as if I had somehow declared myself on the ‘honeybee’ side of an imaginary divide, and that these ‘other’ bees were outside of my area.
On ‘my’ side of the fence is the Western honeybee – the familiar, hive-dwelling Apis mellifera. On the other is a vaguely-stripey buzzing mass of bumble-bees, mining-bees and other bees, which then merge gradually into wasps, hornets and hoverflies. For many beekeepers, the world seems starkly split into ‘honeybees’ and ‘not honeybees’. I had found myself firmly on one side of this arbitrary divide, and wanted to get a glimpse into the other world.
So on a weekend in May, I headed to a small village near Swindon for a bee-identification workshop, run by Steven Falk. Steven is one of the foremost bee-experts in the UK. He recently wrote the “Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland“, which was the first comprehensive guide to British bees published since 1896. He’s found many species of bees, and his work has been hugely important in pollinator conservation.
A dozen people gathered at Berrycroft Hub for the workshop. Most of the other participants were ‘official’ insect-people – a mix of students, environmental-consultants and researchers. Most had a professional link to pollinators, and some specialised in other invertebrates but were spreading their diaphanous wings into the wider branches of the entomological family-tree.
The workshop started with a good introduction to the various types of bees, their life-cycles, and their feeding- and nesting-habits. It was interesting to be reminded that all bees are part of an ecosystem. Honeybees are often presented as existing somehow beyond these systems – it’s a black-and-white world of ‘good’ honeybees and ‘bad’ pests, and interaction between the two is generally unwelcome. In late summer, we see our saintly bees defending their hives from evil wasps. For the wild bees, these distinctions are meaningless: there are a number of ‘cuckoo’ bees, which (like cuckoo-birds) lay eggs in the nests of other bee species. Some part of me wants to sympathise with the ‘victim’ and to find out “how we can stop it” – but a healthy ecosystem will sustain both hosts and parasites. The conservation focus is on the habitat, rather than species or individuals.
The Saturday afternoon session focused on the identification of pinned specimens using the ‘dichotomous keys’ in the field guide. I’d never used a dichotomous key before. However, I had read a lot of ‘choose your own adventure’ books when I was a child, and they’re very similar. Instead of saying things like…
“The monster looms out of the darkness. To run away, turn to page 24. To hide behind the cliff, turn to page 37.”
…a dichotomous key will say things like…
“If the specimen is metallic blue, turn to question 4. If it’s not, turn to question 7.”
Each choice leads to a further question, until the book tells you that you’ve successfully identified Andrena cineraria, or Nomada armata, or been pecked to death by a nest-full of zombie vultures.
Of course, with 275 types of bees to identify, the questions move quickly beyond size and colour. When identifying female Sphecodes, we are asked to determine whether the specimen has the following characteristics…
“head in strict dorsal view (with the axis of the eyes vertical) rather box-shaped (Fig 6) with expanded hind-corners and and a broad punctured zone between the ocelli. Pygidium relatively broad. Hind tibiae dorsally with reddish bristles surrounded by whitish hairs. A slimmer species in top view, with the dorsal propodeal area more expanded rearwards (Fig 7).”
Reading the words in the page seems very daunting. Even when peering down a microscope, the characteristics aren’t immediately obvious. However, with an expert and a box of specimens to hand, it was possible to see the differences – a specimen of another type made the distinctions very obvious. (And in the few cases where the descriptions were unclear, Steven took extensive notes for inclusion in later editions of the book.)
For me, it was a useful reminder of bee anatomy. As a non-scientific honeybee-watcher there’s often little need to consider the anatomy of individual bees. So much of the thought and understanding happens at the colony (or ‘bien’) level, that anatomy is easily overlooked. Last winter I’d looked at dead honeybees through a toy microscope – fascinated by the exactness of their forms. I’d learnt some of the terminology – but six months later, I couldn’t tell my pygidium from my floccus. Diagrams in the Field Guide were helpful in bringing me up to speed again (although the wing-vein illustrations were a little too small to be clear).
On Saturday evening, most of the group gathered in the Rose and Crown Inn, and told stories about insects. Brigit arranged the table-furniture, as if explaining a particularly complex set-piece in a football match – “so, the chives were growing about here…” she said, neatly adjusting the position of the vinegar-bottle – “…and the bee-eating ghost spider was here”… the salt-cellar moves across the table. Steven talked about how he caught the insect-bug: a long childhood summer spent collecting the hoverflies of North London. There was a long discussion of various insects found “on the plane”, which I didn’t quite follow. Only hours later, I realised that it was Salisbury Plain – rather than some sort of entomological aircraft.
I went to sleep confident that I knew how to follow dichotomous keys, and (with a few days of practice) would probably be able to identify most pinned specimens – or at least narrow them down to two-or-three possibilities.
The second day was in the fields – wandering the red-kite-haunted hills around the Ridgeway. The experts had brought insect-nets and plastic-tubes, and the rest of us followed along behind, staring ineffectually into the cow-parsley and nettles. I quickly discovered that most bees are not pinned to well-lit pieces of foam – live bees are fast-moving and uncooperative. By the time I’d found the appropriate page of the Field Guide, any relevant bee had long-since flown to the next county.
To my untrained eyes, most bees look the same. But to entomologists, the differences are as obvious as the difference between a sparrow and a seagull. After many hours of hive-watching, I can now identify a flying honeybee from ten paces – there’s something in the shape, the flight-path, the way she holds herself in the air. Entomologists can do the same thing with all the other bees too – to know at a glance whether it’s an mining bee, a nomad bee or a blood bee. Frustratingly for a beginner, they can’t explain ‘how’ they know – getting the ‘feel’ for a bee is a skill that takes years to develop, and isn’t something that can be taught or explained in a weekend.
The afternoon became more about people-watching than bee-watching – seeing the varying levels of excitement at finding a new ‘Section 41’ species on the site. As a complete-beginner, it was difficult to learn anything specific – but it was fascinating to see how many different types of bees were present, and to hear about the interactions between the species. Towards the end of the day, the spoken names crumpled into a long latin-y blur, and bee-fatigue began to set in.
🐝 🐝 🐝
On my way back to Oxford, I watched bumble-bees feeding on the large cotoneaster plant near Shrivenham bus stop. At least fifty individuals were fumbling its small flowers, and I counted at least four different types amongst them. With the Field Guide in hand, I realised that I could put names with some of them – a definite Bombus hortorum, a few Bombus hypnorum, a large Bombus terrestris, and what I thought might have been a Bombus soroeenis with the distinctive gap in the centre of her yellow stripe (edit: probably not, see below comment from Entomacrographic). Although the smaller bees were still an impenetrable mystery, the female bumblebees were slightly less daunting.
The weekend has given me a deeper appreciation of the ‘other bees’ – and an understanding that honeybees are only a tiny part of the bee family. I’m not (yet) rushing out to buy myself an insect-net and a binocular-microscope, but I do feel like it has opened my eyes to the complexity and variety of bee species and perhaps changed the way that I think about the honeybees, and the other bees, in my garden.
🐝 🐝 🐝
The workshop was hosted at Berrycroft Hub – a farm a few miles east of Swindon. There was a constant supply of tea, homemade cake and motherly concern (include a late-night drive round the local campsites in search of a possibly-lost course-participant). Lunch was eaten in the farmhouse kitchen – with an aquarium of beetles next to the Aga and a cardboard box of chicks cheeping happily in the corner. It is an excellent venue, and I’m definitely going to look into other courses there.
Steven Falk runs various bee-and-hoverfly based courses and workshops around the country, not all focused specifically on identification. He’s an excellent teacher, and I’d highly recommend his courses. This bee and hoverfly identification workshop at Berrycroft Hub is being repeated in July – and is definitely worth going to if you’re interested in learning about the bees on the other side of the honeybee fence.