Our Science Manager Dr Richard Comont, tells us how to identify and record that bee you’ve spotted.
We’ve all heard that bees are struggling. But how do we actually know this? And how are all the individual bee species doing? The answer may be closer than you think . . .
With over 250 species in the UK, including 24 species of bumblebee, the vast majority of our knowledge of wild bee populations in the UK (and pretty much all other wildlife) comes from amateur naturalists. The names have changed over time – from the Victorian ‘gentleman scientists’ (although there were many famous females too) to ‘biological recorders’ to the current favourite term, ‘citizen scientists’. But the activity has remained the same over the centuries: volunteers note the species they see around them, and make a record of their sightings with four critical pieces of information:
- What (is it)?
- Where (did you find it)?
- When (did you see it)?
- Who (saw it?) (You!)
For at least the past half century, these critical wildlife records have been collected centrally by national recording schemes and societies – one for almost anything you can think of is www.brc.ac.uk/recording-schemes. These schemes and societies and the national Biological Records Centre work with recorders across the UK to check the data, make sure that species haven’t been misidentified, and carry out mapping and analysis work (as well as much more besides). They act as the custodians for our centuries-long national wildlife story, seen through the eyes of generations of people who were aware of their surrounding environment, and recorded what they saw on a day to day basis.
It’s easy to add your own stitch to this great tapestry of wildlife recording. At the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, we recommend three ways to record that bee: ad-hoc (one-off) recording, FIT Counts and BeeWalk.
Ad-hoc recording is the simplest. Firstly, find a bee. Secondly, identify it to species. Thirdly, submit the record. Fourthly, relax in the knowledge of a job well done.
Finding the bee is the easy bit! Visit a patch of flowers, or plant some yourself. You can visit our Bee kind tool to help, and they’ll come to you. To identify it, you’ll find that practice makes perfect. Assuming it’s a bumblebee, sit with a book – this is a good one on bumblebees; ‘Bumblebees – an introduction‘, visit our Bee ID pages or an app such as the Bee ID app and study the bees as they come and go, or take pictures and run them past an expert for checking – iSpot or the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group are great for this. You can also share your sighting with us on social media. We’re always pleased to see pictures or videos of bumblebees in your gardens or elsewhere and can help identify which species you’ve found – check out our tips for taking photos for identification. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
Once you have an ID, you’re ready to record. At the Trust we recommend using the iRecord system – it’s quick and simple to use, available as a website or an app, and the data is instantly available to any relevant wildlife organisation. In particular, we work with the national experts at the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) to make sure as many records as possible make it from iRecord into the national dataset, where they can be used for mapping and analysis. Experts from BWARS monitor records on iRecord and it won’t take long for your records to be picked up. There are several other apps and websites, but none that check data as thoroughly (so there’s more chance of it being unreliable) or share their data as widely (so it can’t and won’t be used for analysis of bee populations, for example).
The two other surveys supported by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust are FIT Counts and BeeWalk and are more structured. This makes them slightly more complex to carry out, but means that analysis of the data can be more detailed (because we know a lot more about how the data was collected), so they can be more informative than ad-hoc records alone.
Flower-Insect Timed Counts (FIT Counts) are part of the National Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS), which is a partnership of research organisations and environmental charities, including the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. They’re designed to be a basic, straightforward survey for anyone to do when they have a few spare minutes, or as an activity with a school group or on a bioblitz. A FIT count basically involves ten minutes of sitting by a small patch of flowers and recording what visits those flowers, but at a very broad group level – bumblebee, butterfly, beetle, etc (for full details visit the PoMS site). The aim is to help us all get a better handle on how the different pollinator groups are doing relative to each other, which is important as we have a lot more data on some (e.g. butterflies) than we do on others (e.g. beetles).
BeeWalk is the Trust’s own standardised bumblebee-monitoring project*. Essentially, volunteer BeeWalkers walk a fixed route (a transect) at least once a month from March to October, counting how many bumblebees of each species they encounter. From this we can get an up-to-date idea of how bumblebees are doing across the UK, and we publish this analysis yearly as the BeeWalk Annual Report. Visit our publications page to read our latest reports. *Please read the latest guidance.
A biological record is a window on the world of wildlife as it is at the time. Collected together, they tell us stories about the world as it is now, and of how it used to be. They inform us of the issues, point the way to solutions, and confer a kind of immortality on the recorders who have their names preserved alongside their data.
Please do join the army of citizen scientists across the country. You don’t need to be an expert, or spend all your spare time peering down a microscope, or to have acres of land managed for wildlife: all you need is an eye for what’s around you and the motivation to help us all better understand our bumblebees, and indeed all our other species, are doing.