Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The tricky world of bee ID

It's that time of year and I thought about posting about something festive (reindeer, mistletoe...) but having just seen a bumblebee fly past, I decided to stick to my favourite topic - invertebrates. Despite the sogginess of the summer, I've been recording bee species in our garden, and aside from their wondrous diversity and interesting life histories have noticed that it seems to be a surprisingly difficult group to get to grips with identification-wise. There's no inherent reason for this - after all, most invertebrate groups require a close look at small features to enable species-level identification (i.e. most bee species can't be distinguished in the field, but that's true of the majority of groups), and there aren't that many species in the UK (about 260 - similar to the hoverflies and flea beetles for example). So, although they are more numerous and a little more difficult than, say, butterflies, the main problem is a lack of modern literature, in particular species-level identification guides, at least in the UK (which is my focus here, though I imagine the same problem exists elsewhere).

An interesting little bee, but how to identify it?
The last comprehensive account of British bees was published in the late 19th century (!) (Saunders 1896) and can now be downloaded from here (click 'view book' on the right then choose the format, the pdf is about 20MB) - including the fine colour plates which are still useful. Then in the early 20th century the British Hymenoptera were covered (well, though not comprehensively) as part of the excellent 'Wayside & Woodland' series (Step 1932), but despite changes to taxonomy, distribution and our knowledge of ecology, there were few publications outside of journal articles until a key the genera in the 1980s (Willmer 1985) and to higher taxonomic levels, including genera in some cases, of the wider Aculeata (Bees, Ants and Wasps) (Yarrow 1986). However, even with readily available keys to genera in place, a single species-level identification guide to UK bees has not been forthcoming and although old does not mean wrong, taxonomic changes, extinctions, new discoveries and so on, do gradually render more venerable works out-of-date. Instead, becoming familar with UK bees as a whole has meant (and still does) accumulating keys covering various genera from a variety of sources such as the leaf-cutter bees (Else 1999), the bumblebees (Edwards & Jenner 2009) and the test keys to Coelioxys and Hylaeus available to download here. These can be supplemented with a range of more general works on Hymenoptera; for example I have recently acquired Bellmann (2010) which covers a selection of Central European Aculeate species (in German), including a wealth of interesting information and some nifty little line drawings to aid identification e.g. of wing cells/venation. It will also lead to an improvement in my ability to read German...

So, there has been progress - some genera are covered (though the test keys are exactly that and need to be used with caution) - and the lack of a current UK guide is well known, being noted in another excellent publication (Baldock 2008) which includes useful photos and a key to bee genera. I use this a lot and its relevance is broader than the title suggests as Surrey supports a large proportion of the national bee fauna. Of course, I haven't yet covered online resources or societies and the one that really stands out here is BWARS (the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society) which includes a variety of resources (inlcuding the test keys mentioned above) such as a more comprehensive bibliography (with more opportunities to improve my German) and an excellent photo gallery. All told, practise is essential and I have learned a lot about bee ID over the last few years, though there are still some gaps I want to fill (when aren't there?). There's also a tantalising hint of a work-in-progress in the form of a 'Handbook of the Bees of the British Isles and the Channel Islands' to be published by the Ray Society, though no date is yet known. I may have to put some money aside for that one...

Happy bee-hunting!

Hmmm, nice clear wing venation, now where's that key...?


Baldock, D.W. (2008). Bees of Surrey. Surrey Wildlife Trust, Woking.
Bellmann, H. (2010). Bienen, Wespen, Ameisen. Kosmos, Stuttgart. [In German]
Edwards, M. & Jenner, M. (2009). Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain & Ireland (rev. ed.). Ocelli, Eastbourne
Else, G.R. (1999). Identification. Leaf-cutter bees. British Wildlife10(6): 388-393.
Saunders, E. (1896). The Hymenoptera Aculeata of the British Isles. Reeve, London.
Step, E. (1932). Bees, Wasps, Ants and Allied Insects of the British Isles. Warne, London.
Willmer, P. (1985). Bees, Ants and wasps. A Key to Genera of the British Aculeates. Field Studies Council, Taunton.
Yarrow, I.H.H. (1986). Key to the Aculeata (ants, bees and wasps). In: Betts, C. (ed.). The Hymenopterist's Handbook (2nd ed.). AES, Hanworth. pp. 168-172.

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