My name is George Allen. I am a final year marine biology student at the University of Plymouth, Devon and I have the intention of transitioning my career path from the marine biological sciences to biodiversity, with a focus on insects as my model species. I am particularly interested in continuous monitoring, mapping biodiversity in response to environment and understanding the intricacies of insect population function. I am also an amateur bee taxonomist, which gave me the confidence to run this project. 

Bees really are great, they pollinate flowers and food crops whilst feeding on nectar, act as a major food source to birds and badgers, aerate soils by digging long underground tunnels and some of them even produce honey for us humans to eat. People like bees. Admittedly, people probably don’t like bees as much as me, but nevertheless, when compared with other insects bees are in the good books of the general public. Your average Joe wouldn’t think twice about a bee buzzing leisurely around their flower garden, going about its business in order to find food for its queen if it social, or prepare balls of pollen to bring back to its nest if it is solitary. A yellowjacket wasp on the other hand, if attracted by the sweet sugary aroma coming from average Joe’s vodka lemonade, would no doubt be greeted with an onslaught of wild arm waving and swatting, the confused wasp eventually being shooed away or squashed under a rolled-up newspaper. 

                                

A nomad bee (Nomada sp.) feeds on some newly blossomed raspberry flowers. These bees are often confused with wasps because of their reduced pollen-collecting hairs (scopae) and less ‘friendly’ appearance. 

Despite this love for bees, the numerous conversations I’ve shared with people about them (apologies to anyone I’ve subjected to this) rarely extend further than a mention of the ‘cute’ honeybees (Apis mellifera) or ‘fuzzy’ bumblebees (Bombus sp.) they’ve seen darting about their lavender plant each morning before and after work. Even people who spend large quantities of time outdoors; gardeners, hikers, fishermen e.t.c., are often hard pressed to name more than 3 or 4 types of bee that live in the countryside they spend so much of their time in. Despite their immense popularity and public image, UK bee species remain largely nameless amongst the general public, being mainly confined to a handful of enthusiasts, scientists and taxonomists. 

                                 

Anthidium manicatum, the Wool Carder Bee, is so-called because females collect 'down' from fibrous plants such as Lamb's Ear and use it to construct a nest. These solitary bees are known for their propensity to fight one another, males often engaging in aerial tumbles and scraps for territory. 

It would no doubt be a big surprise to many people to hear that over 250 species of bee make their home in the UK, displaying an enormous diversity of life-histories, methods of feeding and ways of constructing their nests. For example, the largest group, the ‘mining’ bees (Andrenidae) contains over 60 species of similar yet visually diverse species which nest inside tunnels under the ground, collect pollen for themselves and live solitary lives instead of being part of a hive. By contrast, there is only 1 species of honeybee in the UK, albeit with a few subspecies (members of the same species which display slightly different physical features to one another), which lives in social hives of thousands of individuals, all of which are tasked with foraging for nectar, nursing new larvae or guarding the nest entrance, amongst myriad other different roles. There are also many species of bee which are considered solitary, yet live in large, ‘semi-social’ aggregations in which females will interact passively with one another and share a few minor responsibilities such as nest construction and food storage.

This diversity and richness of all species on Earth has intrigued me for years, it just so happens that I am now deeply entrenched in a love for bees, a group of animals which has recently been granted the title of ‘The most important species on Earth’[1] due equally to our reliance on them for pollinating our food crops, but also as a response to their documented declines in the last century. Evidenced by millions of years of evolution, all species existing today are as ‘important’ as one another to the functioning of Earth’s ecosystems, without the countless interactions they have with one another they are far less likely to continue to live in coming years. However, bees, thanks to their ecosystem services and economic presence, are likely to play a far more impactful role in the survival of humankind than would kestrels, grayling, ladybugs or grasshoppers, so their importance, at least to the survival of humankind, is acknowledged by both scientists and politicians alike.

                                 

A Bombus terrestris queen feeds on buddleia blossoms. These bees, commonly referred to as 'Buff-tailed bumblebees', are one of our most frequent garden visitors and can fly for most of the year in the UK, withstanding the cold with their large size. 

My love for biodiversity took me last year on a research expedition to the cloud forests of Honduras, Central America, where I acted as a research assistant to a group of scientists who gather data on local rainforest wildlife, then present this data to the Honduran government in order to provide evidence of the conservation efforts in their beloved Cusuco National Park nature reserve. One year later and I have completed a 3-month internship in my university’s research centre, collaborated as an online intern with researchers in Panama who work to understand the effects of climate change on insect populations in rainforests and am I now currently working as a research volunteer for the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, with the intention of sampling, identifying and recording the numerous species of bee within the Coombe Bissett Down nature reserve. This project, whilst initially a product of boredom during lockdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, has evolved into a well organised approach to producing a solid bee species list for the reserve. I have also gained an insight into the variable biodiversity of each section in the reserve, of which there are 3, each different in its own way. 

The three areas within the reserve are as follows: the site I refer to as ‘Long Meadow’, an older, 20-year arable reversion which is now pristine wildflower meadow. Second is Upper Beeches, a younger, 10-year arable reversion placed on an exposed hillside. Third is Gypsy Field, a brand new arable reversion which has recently been seeded with wildflower mix, but is still covered primarily by bare ground and early colonising flowers like Scentless Mayweed and Scarlet Pimpernels. These 3 fields offer the chance to observe a time-scale of historical farmed land being converted into wildflower-covered nature reserve for the purpose of conservation. Over June and July 2020, I was lucky enough to sample each zone in the reserve for its bee biodiversity, cataloguing each species I found, how many of that species I found there, what method I used to collect them and what date they were collected (amongst a lot of other data). 

                                                    

A triplet of pan traps set out to collect pollinating insects. The colour combination of blue, white and yellow mimics the colours of our native wildflowers, appealing to the highest number of wild bee species and increasing sample yield. Pan traps are considered to be a highly efficient way of sampling for pollinators in a given area. 

I used a combination of two methods, the first and most effective being ‘Pan Trapping’. This process involves spray painting plastic bowls with UV paint in order to make them look like flowers to insects, then filling them with water and a little detergent to break the water’s surface tension. This method can collect large numbers of insects that would otherwise be missed when using a net, it is also easy to control as you simply collect them after a period of 2 days, then identify the contents. The second method was far more traditional, a ‘Free Transect’. This is the classic ‘entomologist running around with a net tripping over catching bugs and generally being a laughing stock’, but it’s good fun and can place more focus on larger species like Bumblebees and mining bees that can often escape the pan traps.

                                    

The identification process took many many hours of painstaking work. The process involves drying bees that have been stored in alcohol, pinning the bees in a position so that they could be observed under a microscope, then identifying each individual and uploading the data to a master spreadsheet. 

Using these collection methods has allowed me not only to add a few rare species to the reserve species list, but has also given me a chance to look at how fast bee biodiversity can recover when converting old farmland into a nature reserve. The data show that bee biodiversity is far higher in the older arable reversions (Long Meadow and Upper Beeches) than it is in the newer Gypsy Field. This is solid evidence that the conversion of old farmland into a managed nature reserve is a highly effective method of conserving wild bee biodiversity. It would be great for these arable reversions to be implemented in larger numbers across the UK, particularly as a method of both restoring and maintaining native bee populations.

Huge thanks go to Ashley the Reserve Manager, as well as Lucy the Senior Livestock Officer, for giving me the opportunity to undertake this survey and practice my research skills. The process has been a great learning opportunity and it fills me with joy to know that I have contributed to the conservation of British native bees. I’m hoping to stay in contact with Ashley and run a number of bee-related conservation projects in future, this is just the beginning!

 

https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/23245/20190709/bees-are-the-most-important-living-being-on-earth.htm