Land Manager's Diary: Read it here>

That autumnal feeling is prone to seep into the bones as we hurtle through September and daylight hours wane. The shock of colour on show at our High Borrowdale upland hay meadows and flowered jewels in the hedgerows and across the county dormant once more. We’ll anticipate their return another year to lift the spirits and see in another summer. We have reported on the amazing work of our volunteers plug planting on our meadows this year but we should reflect on some other buzzy helpers whose role as pollinator brings this annual colour to our lives. 

A hay meadow can be seen as a ‘supermarket’ where the packaging of the products attracts bees to their particular flower, the markings on the petals provide information about the contents of the package and the complexity of the flower/opening the package is learned by individual bees who tend to specialise in a particular flower during their short (2-4 week) life out foraging for food.  This way the flower ‘holds the attention’ of particular bees and in consequence they transport the pollen to the same species of flower – rose pollen being move to a geranium is no use to the flower. 

Most of the hay meadow flowers at High Borrowdale are blue, pink or purple. The colours that bee vision is most sensitive to. Like many other flowers, yellow flowers in the hay meadow are reflecting UV light which bees see as ‘bee purple’ because their vision is also very sensitive to ultra violet wavelengths which humans cannot see. There are markings on the petals that variously reflect and absorb light including UV radiation sending out a visual message to bees attracting and guiding them to the rewarding parts of the flower.  

Flowers have evolved from dish shapes visited by the more primitive short tongued bees to tube shaped flowers that better protect the nectar and pollen making the plant more energy efficient.  These flowers are mostly visited by more highly evolved longer tongued bees but at High Borrowdale, we witness little holes in the Comfrey flower corolla made by short tongued bumblebees who then cheat and thieve the nectar but fail to pollinate the flower because they do not access it in the ‘correct’ way.   

The weather at High Borrowdale is not ideal for seeing bumblebees but they have good fur coats and will still forage in the rain and at low temperatures so we still see quite a few varieties. Bumblebees are special because they buzz pollinate certain flowers, vibrating at just the right frequency to make the anthers explode and release their pollen. We depend on this method of pollination for some of our food crops – tomatoes and aubergines for example.  You sometimes hear the high pitched buzzing in foxgloves and roses. 

Pictured: Bilberry bumblebee Bombus monticola male by Rob Petley-Jones

Some of the varieties spied by our friends at ‘Bee Ed’ on a visit to our hay meadows: 

  • Bombus pascuorum – the ginger/brown bumblebee with a moderately long tongue found on red clover which has a long tube flower and on foxglove as we approached the meadow. It nests above the ground in tussocks and is called a carder bee because it combs moss and dry vegetation to form the nest.
  • Bombus pratorum – the little Early Bumblebee with a short tongue but also small enough to crawl onto long tube shaped flowers. It has a pale orange tail.
  • Bombus leucorum - the white tailed two banded bumblebee was seen mostly on white clover
  • Bombus terrestris - the (not quite) white tailed two banded bumblebee was found on the hawkbit
  • Bombus hortorum - the white tailed three banded bumblebee with a very long tongue was on yellow rattle and red clover, tube flowers.
  • Bombus monticola - the Bilberry Bumblebee – this was a special find – using the upland hay meadow to forage until the Bilberry comes into flower on the uplands. It was found on the yellow rattle and has a large area of red on its abdomen distinguishing it from the common bumblebee. 

Friends of the Lake District is very grateful to ‘Bee Ed’ for providing us with such an informative and accessible glimpse into the world of our native bees on our land. We always look forward to seeing the show provided by our upland hay meadows and are delighted that they are providing food and shelter for these wonderful insects.