Beth and the Bees: on Placement in Devon

Beth Langely

Before Beth set off to start her PhD, she spent a month surveying bees on the dunes with our North Devon National Trust team, working with Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

As a lover of nature and the great outdoors, when the opportunity to spend a month working on the Dynamic Dunescapes project arose, I jumped at the chance. Having just finished a Research Masters in Geography from The University of Exeter, I was looking to gain experience over the summer before starting a PhD in Environmental Science at Glasgow University in September. This placement offered an amazing opportunity to gain experience in wildlife IDing, coastal surveying and practical work, developing skills that I have not previously had chance to.

During my placement, I had the opportunity to conduct a bumblebee survey on Woolacombe Dunes, collecting data for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The ‘BeeWalk’ is a standardised bumblebee-monitoring scheme that involves monthly surveys along pre-defined transects, counting bumblebees and identifying their species and caste (queen, worker or male).

A bee is seen behind the blue mesh of a sampling pot with yellow flowers behind.
A bee is seen behind the blue mesh of a sampling pot

As a mild, cloudy day, the weather conditions weren’t far off ideal for bumblebees, and we were treated with a whole host of bumblebees. I was scribe and tasked with recording everything Paul, a ranger at the National Trust and Hannah, a regular volunteer, shouted out - ‘common carder, worker, bramble, buff/white, queen, ragwort’. The sheer number of bees made recording difficult, but with bit of practise I soon got the hang of it.

Hannah showed me how to successfully catch bees in an ID pot so that they can be observed closeup. The most effective way is to just ‘go for it’, covering the bee with the tube and sliding under the plunger before they have the chance to fly out! Learning from Paul and Hannah, I was able to start identifying bumblebees myself. The first step in identification is to look at their tail colour and whether it is white-tailed, red-tailed, or ginger-tailed. This narrows down the possible species and is a fairly easy trait to identify. The banding on the abdomen and thorax, facial hair, wing colour, hairy hind legs and pollen baskets help identify species and caste – this is where it gets a little tricky! Although I still need a little more practise to tell a garden bumblebee from a buff/white-tailed bumblebee (and don’t ask me about distinguishing between a white tailed or buff tailed!), I’d be able to tell you if I saw a Common Carder, a Red-tailed or an Early bumblebee!

Two smiling girls in red shirts are pictured on the dunes surveying bees

Whilst out on the bumblebee survey, not only did I learn about bumblebees, but with the help of Paul and Hannah, I also started recognising and identifying vegetation such as Musk Thistle, Old Man’s Beard and Water Mint, and the odd butterfly species. The wealth of knowledge and skills within the team, and their willingness to share, is incredible; there is no doubt I will come away from this placement with a unique insight into coastal conservation, a head full of wildlife facts and a real appreciation for bumblebees!