This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr. James Hogan, of the Museum’s Hope Entomological Collections.
Bumblebees and honeybees busily working away are one of the iconic visions of summer. Bumblebees and honeybees are also closely related, both belonging to the order Hymenoptera, family Apidae.
In the UK 28 species of bumblebee (species of Bombus) have been recorded, although several species are sadly now extinct or have been seen only a few times.
The short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) has been the focus of recent conservation efforts. Although extinct in the UK, descendants of some British short-haired bumblebees still survive– in New Zealand! These bees originate from a deliberate introduction to New Zealand in the late 19th Century for pollination of clover crops. Unfortunately, attempts to re-introduce these New Zealand bees have been unsuccessful because they are too inbred, but by introducing short-haired bumblebees from Sweden the species is establishing again in Kent (more details about the short-haired bumblebee re-introduction can be found at http://www.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/projects/details/299380-shorthaired-bumblebee-reintroduction )
Although we have lost some species we have recently gained one more, the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). This species is believed to have colonised the UK naturally from France and since its arrival about 10 years ago is spreading rapidly across Britain. We first became aware of this new bee in Oxford in 2008 when Steven Williams, one of our regular volunteers, brought in a strange-looking bumblebee which none of us recognised. It had a colour pattern unlike any other British species, with a red-brown thorax and a black abdomen with a white tip.
After a bit of detective work (and some help from local bee expert Ivan Wright) the arrival of the tree bumblebee in Oxford was confirmed. This bumblebee is now a common sight in Oxford gardens –look out for it next spring!