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Walking among bees with Steven Falk

By Nicola Temple

Steven speaking to us in front of the limestone
meadow. Photo: Nicola Temple
I thoroughly love watching insects visit my garden (aphids and a few other pests excepted). However, I have to admit that beyond broad groupings, bumblebee, honey bee, hover fly, fly etc, I’m not very good at identifying them down to species. This clearly isn’t necessary to enjoy them, but I do find that when I know a species, when I know its routines and habits (as much as anyone does), then I have a deeper appreciation for them. So, when the University of Bristol Botanic Garden offered a bee identification workshop with Steven Falk, I signed myself up.

Steven Falk has had an interest in insects since his childhood in London in the 1960s and 70s. Insects inspired his artwork and his skill as an artist earned him the honour of illustrating the book British Hoverflies, which he began working on when he was only 15. He has gone on to illustrate and write many publications since, including my newly acquired Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Steven began the talk with some fast facts about insects in England. There are about 24,000 species of insect in England, 6,000 of which are regular visitors to flowers. “The biggest slice of this insect pie is wasps,” he explained. Even parasitic wasps visit flowers, and all together there are around 2,800 species.  Bees make up a mere 280 species and hover flies another 280. However, though they are less diverse in terms of species, bees and hoverflies are both abundant and extremely effective pollinators - so they punch above their diversity, so to speak.

Steven holding a yellow-legged mining-bee.
Photo: Nicola Temple
We start our walk in the Botanic Garden in the limestone meadow, just beside the West Terrace and the pond. If you unfocus your eyes a little and stare across the flowers, it is alive with activity. Steven shows us Myathropa florea, a reasonably sized hoverfly that has distinct grey markings on its thorax. It has an aqueous larvae, which lives in little rot holes at the base of trees. Then Steven points out a bumblebee mimic, Cheilosia illustrata, which tends to spend time near Hogweed because its larvae tunnel through the stems and roots. Apparently you can tell the age of a forest by the species of hoverfly present because they are so closely associated with certain plants.
Within minutes we’ve also spotted a common carder-bee (Bombus pascuorum) with its chestnut thorax - though Steven explains that this can be quite variable. It has a longer tongue and so this species is able to get down into the clover flowers. But there are also some buff-tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) flying about also, which have shorter tongues and so they bite a hole at the base of the flower to rob the nectar. We spot lots of honey bees (Apis mellifera), which Steven also explains can be extremely variable in appearance, ranging from the typical striped appearance to almost entirely black - the tell tale sign being that its hind legs hang down as it flies. We haven’t even moved on the tour and we’ve already spotted at least six pollinator species - probably far more, I just can’t write fast enough to keep up with Steven listing them off!
The 'fuzz' of lamb's ear is used by the female
wool-carder bee to line her nest.
Photo: Nicola Temple
Using what he calls his ‘praying mantis’ technique, Steven grabs a yellow-legged mining-bee (Andrena flavipes), and holds it so that we can all have a look at it. The long antennae tell you that this is not a fly, however, Steven goes on to list the colour variations that you can encounter. With all of these colour variations, I’m pretty sure I don’t stand a chance of accurately identifying anything on my own!
As we wander past some Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), Steven mentions that the female wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), a solitary bee, uses the fuzz from the plant’s leaves to line its nest. Steven then spots a patchwork leaf-cutter bee (Megachile centuncularis) and explains that it doesn’t collect pollen on its hind legs, but rather on its underbelly. Using his insect net, he catches it and place it temporarily in a little tube so that we all get a chance to look at it.
We walk past the wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) and there doesn’t appear to be a single flower that isn’t being visited by a bumblebee. It becomes obvious that while many of the tour participants are interested in the bees, they are equally interested in noting down which of the plants in the Botanic Garden are popular with pollinators so that they can create more bee-friendly gardens at home.
A great pied hoverfly (Volucella
pellucens
).
Photo: Nicola Temple
As one would expect, near the end of the tour Steven begins to discuss some of the challenges that our pollinators face these days. He discusses the use of pesticides and the loss of habitat. He mentions that more erratic weather patterns and mild winters can lead to mortality - the latter causing over-wintering bees to go mouldy. But, he also finds the silver lining, stating that some bee species are expanding their distribution due to climate change.
It was only the commitment to another tour that forced Steven to end our walk. His love and enthusiasm for insects was apparent and he could have no doubt gone on to discuss far more than he did.
I definitely had different expectations for the workshop. I’m not sure whether it was the term ‘workshop’ or my own background in biological sciences that set my expectations that we would be looking at example specimens and comparing their features so that we might be able to better identify them. This was more of a garden tour and pollinator walk, which was lovely, but I’m not entirely sure I feel better equipped to identify bees in my garden as a result of being on the tour. If anything, it has shown me how much variation there can be within species let along adding in mimics and related species into the mix!  In the end I bought the Field Guide because really, in the end, that’s what it takes...good ol’ practice! And if I’m unsure Steven said to send him a picture on Twitter and he’ll help me identify it, which is brilliant! Not to mention, he has a fantastic free site on Flickr with pictures and information about all the British species, which is an incredible resource.
Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) attracts
a tremendous number of pollinators.
Photo: Nicola Temple
This is the Year of the Pollinator at the Botanic Garden, so there are any number of pollination themed activities happening this year, including a beekeeping taster day, short courses for encouraging pollinators to your garden, and of course the annual bee and pollination festival in September.  And if you happen to snap a great photo of a pollinator this summer, you can enter the Botanic Garden's photography competition, which will earn you a signed copy of Steven’s Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland as well as tickets to the Bee and Pollination Festival, visit the website for more details on how to enter.

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