The Queen of Drones: Bee Surveys in the Dunes

By Bev Phillips

It is never a bad thing when, during your very first week in a new job, you are asked if you want to accompany the Area Ranger on a bumblebee survey.

This was a first for me and although I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing I was certainly keen to find out, especially as it took place on a beautiful early spring afternoon in March!

The survey I took part in was a standardised bumblebee-monitoring survey, which involves ‘BeeWalkers’ walking the same fixed route (transect) once a month between March and October, counting the bumblebees seen and identifying them to species and caste (queen, worker, male) where possible.

The results from the survey are shared with Bumblebee Conservation, who run the national recording scheme, known as ‘Bee Walk’. Bee Walk helps monitor the abundance of bumblebees on transects across the country and was set up following the decline of Bumblebees to better understand the reasons why.

The most numerous of the bees we discovered on the dunes at Woolacombe during the 1.5-hour survey was the very enigmatic Buff-tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris).

Queen Buff tailed bumblebee – Photo: Bev Phillips
Queen Buff tailed bumblebee – Photo: Bev Phillips

The Buff-tailed is a large (the UK’s largest), oval shaped bumble bee that emerges in early spring as temperatures rise. It nests in large, underground colonies and we were able to see some newly emerged Queens warming themselves on the sandy ground.

The Buff-tailed bumblebee, named after the queen's buff-coloured tail is a widespread species that visits many different types of flowers for pollen and nectar.

Newly emerged Queen Buff tailed bumble bee, warming itself on the dunes at Woolacombe sand dunes. Photo: Bev Phillips
Newly emerged Queen Buff tailed bumble bee, warming itself on the dunes at Woolacombe sand dunes. Photo: Bev Phillips

The dunes at Woolacombe are home to a variety of pollinating flowers that provide essential nutrients to this species of bee. One of the very endearing facts that I learnt during the survey, is that Buff-tailed bumblebees have a short tongue, so prefer open daisy-like flowers, as well as vetches, primroses, celandine, blackthorn and red clover, all of which are found on the dunes at Woolacombe.

This has led to them being known as ‘nectar-robbers,’ because if they come across a flower that is too deep for their tongue, they will bite a hole at its base and suck out the nectar. Afterwards, other insects looking for nectar will also use this handy hole.

Due to the current restrictions, we will not be undertaking any further surveys until the time allows, but I certainly cannot wait to survey more bees. I may even inquire into surveying a ‘new’ transect area.

What is great is that anyone can become a bee walker! When the situation allows, all that’s needed is a spare hour or so every month to walk a fixed route of roughly a mile. Register online at Bumblebee Conservation Trust, send in your recorded sightings and help contribute to important long-term monitoring of bumblebee population changes.

Primroses at Woolacombe Sand Dunes – Photo: Bev Phillips
Primroses at Woolacombe Sand Dunes – Photo: Bev Phillips
Bev - Devon

About the author

Bev Phillips
National Trust Devon

Recently trading West Wales for north Devon, I have over 10 years’ experience volunteering and working for non-profit conservation charities in terrestrial and marine environments, have a BSc Hons in Wildlife Conservation and am passionate about connecting people with their natural environments. Outside of work, I’m a keen climber, surfer and diver and can often be found swinging from an aerial trapeze or exploring the outdoors with my dogs.