Our Science and Research
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is a science-led organisation, and we lead the UK’s only standardised abundance-based survey of a major pollinator group – BeeWalk – with over 350 sites monitored on a monthly basis through the flight season. We are always keen to collaborate on bumblebee projects, especially conservation-related, and regularly support under- and post-grad students as well as working with academics from universities and research institutes across the UK.
We also collect and hold other data, notably from the Short-haired Bumblebee Project based at Dungeness, Kent. This project has run since 2009, surveying bumblebees (including several conservation-priority species) and wildflower forage availability alongside carrying out conservation interventions.
BeeWalk is a national recording scheme to monitor the abundance of bumblebees across the UK. The survey would be impossible without volunteers who identify and count the bumblebees they see on an hour’s walk each month from March to October. It can be a very pleasant way to spend an hour or two on a sunny day.
BeeWalk generates data on the abundance of different bumblebee species on transects of known habitat across Britain, from March through to October. Flower visitation data is also collected at a subset of these transects. The data from BeeWalk is used to produce an annual assessment of how well the British bumblebees are doing (the BeeWalk Annual Report), as well as informing a range of scientific papers. For more details, see the Publications page. This provides a wealth of opportunities for analysis.
We have worked with a range of undergraduate students on their dissertations, and with Masters students on projects. We also act as CASE partners on PhD projects and as advisors on others. For details of finished projects, please see our Publications page.
We’re always open to more, and have a range of possible projects outlined below – if you’re a student and you’d like to work on one of these (or a different project that you think we could help with), or more broadly if you’d like to collaborate with us or use our data in a project, please email our Science Manager on firstname.lastname@example.org
Student case studies:
Peter Pike, BSc Animal Science, University of Canterbury. Investigating differences in pollen and nectar production between wild and agricultural-cultivar Red Clover (Trifolium pratense).
Red clover was once a dominant part of the British landscape, prominent in wild-flower meadows. These wild-flower meadows provided bee populations with forage essential for colony health and survival – nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for vital protein and fats.
Due to agricultural intensification in the 20th century, wild-flower meadows have dwindled – an effect that has led to a decline in populations of bumblebees and the extinction of two native species. In an attempt to safeguard the future of the 24 remaining bumblebee species, agri-environmental schemes have been implemented to recreate flower-rich habitat in areas such as field margins and grazing pastures. These schemes advise farmers to sow cultivar mixes into these areas as they are cheap and work well in farm rotations, yet no work has been done on the pollen and nectar content of these cultivars compared to those of the wild type.
If these cultivar mixes are to be successful in conserving bumblebee populations, they must be able to provide adequate quality and quantity of forage. Peter will investigate this by looking at both the nectar and pollen of cultivar and wild-type red clover. The amount of nectar produced by each type will be recorded and then analysed for sucrose content using a hand-held refractometer. Pollen will be collected from each type and analysed for protein content using a Bradford Assay. The results will then be analysed for differences between the wild and cultivar red clover.
Jake Jones, BSc Countryside & Environmental Management, Harper Adams University. Investigating different forage usage by short, medium and long-tongued bumblebee species.
Bumblebees in the genus Bombus have got varying tongue lengths which can limit what the bees can forage on. They fit into three groups: short, medium and long-tongued. The four species which Jake’s dissertation will focus on are Ruderal and Brown-banded carder, both long-tongues and Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species. One medium-length tongue species the Red-tailed bumblebee, and one short tongued bee such as the Buff-tailed bumblebee. The dissertation will hopefully uncover key plant species that are a staple forage source for all three tongue lengths. This will hopefully show plant species which are commonly used by all four species for every month April to September.
The dissertation will also look into the importance of White Deadnettle for bumblebees. This species flowers twice a year, once in April and again in August, which are key times of year for the queens to start colonies, or enter winter dormancy. Soil analysis will occur during the summer to see if the plant has any limitations on where it can grow. This will be to investigate if the nettle can be encouraged and managed across the project area, as the flower seems to be very localised on the Romney Marsh. Overall the dissertation will help provide a clearer picture of which plants the bees depend on from April to September.
Hope Moran, BSc Animal Biology, University of Worcester. Quantifying foraging from pollen sampling of British bumblebees.
Bumblebee populations have declined dramatically in the UK over the past century: two species have gone extinct and a further two species (the Shrill carder and Great yellow bumblebees) have declined so severely that they are threatened with extinction.
These declines have led to increasing concern about pollinators. The main drivers are land management changes which remove flowers from the landscape. Consequently, current conservation interventions focus on the establishment of flower-rich areas. Monitoring has traditionally focused on the rate of flower visitation, largely ignoring the fact that a flower visit can potentially be for several reasons, only one of which is to collect pollen in order to provision the nest. In order to enhance the suitability of land management strategies, we need to develop monitoring techniques better able to link observable behaviour (such as flower visitations) to how bumblebees are actually using an area.
For this, establishing the interaction between pollen resources and usage is critical; bumblebee larvae feed almost exclusively on pollen, but, flightless, they are entirely dependent on pollen brought home by adult bumblebees. This project aims to develop a methodology for quantifying usage of foraging resources by comparing flower visitation data to the composition of pollen collected by bumblebees in the same area. We will develop this methodology using common bumblebee species, with the long-term aim of using the methodology developed to quantify foraging resources for rare bumblebees.
The project would involve catching bumblebees around the Malvern Hills; pollen grains will be sampled from plants and bumblebees caught within the project site, and flower visitation data will be collected. We will compare the composition of the bee-collected pollen to flower visitation rates to identify those plant species which are over- or under-represented in the bumblebees’ pollen usage versus expectations from flower visitations. This will allow recommendations on the feasibility of this monitoring methodology can be made.
Projects of interest
Using genetics to ask questions of the White-tailed bumblebee complex
A range of questions remain to be answered about the White-tailed bumblebee complex (Bombus lucorum, Bombus magnus and Bombus cryptarum):
- How widespread are the species in lowland England?
- Are the species which occur mainly in montane areas in Scotland also found in English and Welsh upland areas?
- Are there any reliable morphological differences in different castes?
These questions (and plenty of others) rely on accurate field observations backed up by genetic analysis of specimens to species.
Flower visitations: chance or choice?
Many BeeWalk volunteers collect flower visitation data on their transects, and some also collect data on the abundance of the different flower species within their transect area. This provides the opportunity to investigate the degree to which bumblebees of different species show any preference for different flower species.