As easy as A-bee-c with an app

A wildlife app launched today by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust gives users a new view of bumblebees through an augmented reality 3D function.

The free ‘What’s that Bumblebee’ app lets people engage with nature in a different and fun way. It brings a three-dimensional bumblebee to virtual life in the user’s own garden or living room, for studying in detail and with the option of capturing images to send to family and friends.

The app also makes it easy for bumblebee-beginners to identify which of the UK’s most common eight species of these important pollinating insects may be buzzing around their garden or local park.

“In these difficult times, lots of people have been appreciating nature and wanting to find out more. What’s That Bumblebee makes it easy for people of all ages to discover and identify different bumblebees visiting their gardens, outdoor spaces, parks or window boxes,” said Andy Benson, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Education Officer.

The app is available for Apple and Android, and works on compatible phones and tablets. It was developed by the Trust, with National Lottery Heritage Fund support.

In total there are 24 bumblebee species in the UK, but the most common ‘Big 8’ that people are most likely to see in their garden or park are the Buff-tailed bumblebee, Common carder bee, Early bumblebee, Garden bumblebee, Heath bumblebee, Red-tailed bumblebee, Tree bumblebee and White-tailed bumblebee.

What’s That Bumblebee offers a brief description of these eight species, and allows users to compare similar species side-by-side.

“We’ve received lots of enquires from people who’ve had more time to notice bumblebees because of the lockdown and want to find out more, and this app is a great way of doing that. Kids and adults will love seeing a virtual bumblebee in their front room or outdoor space, and being able to capture a photo of it to study – while also being able to go out on their own local mini-safaris to discover our ‘Big 8’ bumblebees in real life,” said Gill Perkins, Chief Executive of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

People are being encouraged to share images from the app on social media using the hashtag #whatsthatbumblebee.

Anne Jenkins, Director, England, Midlands & East at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “It’s wonderful to support this educational and interactive app thanks to the generosity of National Lottery players, and we’re sure it will inspire people to discover more about our precious bumblebees!”

Furry and brightly coloured, bumblebees are icons of the British summer. These important pollinators of our fruit and veg contribute a huge amount to the British economy. One in three mouthfuls of food are due to the hard work of pollinating insects.

But UK bumblebee populations have crashed, and two species have become extinct in the last 80 years. Loss of flower-rich habitat is the biggest threat to their survival, with 97% of our wildflower meadows lost since the 1940s. Climate change, disease and pesticides may also be major threats. The Trust encourages people to make gardens, parks and green spaces bumblebee-friendly.

What’s that Bumblebee can be downloaded for free at the Apple App Store or Google Play.

To find out more, visit

Godly food and pesky midges

Theobroma cacao. Named after the Greek theos (god) and broma (food), the cacao plant is, as any chocoholic would agree, the’ food of the gods’, writes Athayde Tonhasca.

Cacao beans made their way to Europe as medicine, as the cocoa drink cacahuatl (bitter water) of the Maya and Aztec peoples was considered a palliative to abdominal pains and other illnesses. When someone thought of sweetening the paste made of cacao beans, chocolate left the apothecary’s shelf for the kitchen and then for the factories. Joseph Fry – who created the first chocolate bar and Easter egg – Henri Nestlé, Rodolphe Lindt, Milton Hershey and many others helped build an ever growing industry that changed the world. Today, Americans and Europeans consume more than US$100 billion worth of chocolate annually, produced mostly in West Africa.

Not many people know that chocolate production, and by extension the livelihoods of countless small-scale cacao farmers in the developing world, depend on the finicky pollination requirements of the cacao flower.

Flowering occurs in explosions of buds that cover the trunk and main branches, a feature known as cauliflory: a mature tree may produce over 5,000 flowers at a given time.


Cacao flowers sprouting from a tree trunk © Daderot, Wikipedia Creative Commons

The flowers cannot self-fertilize, so they are entirely dependent on pollinators. But the blooms are small, with a convoluted hooded shape and face downwards. So bees, hoverflies and other common flower visitors do not bother with cacao flowers, or just can’t reach their pollen and nectar.


A cacao flower © Björn S., Wikipedia Creative Commons

If flowers are not fertilized, they abscise (drop off) the next day. Only 1 to 5% of all flowers develop into a pod. This apparently inefficient reproductive apparatus makes no sense until we consider that the cacao plant originated from the rainforests of Central and South America. These are hot, dense, dark and moist environments, chocked with rotten wood and decomposing leaf litter. This type of habitat is hostile to many sun-loving pollinators, but it is perfect for one group of insects – the biting midges.

These are ceratopogonid midges (family Ceratopogonidae), of which the 1,000 or so species from the genus Forcipomyia are particularly important for our story. They spend most of the day hidden in the forest’s shady spots, coming out in swarms of enormous numbers in the early morning and late afternoon. Adults live for about a week, but there are about 12 generations per year. Male and female flies visit cacao flowers to collect nectar and pollen. They are 1 to 3 mm in length, so can squeeze their way into the pollen-producing anthers of the small, hooded flowers. Pollen grains attached to the thoracic hairs of a massive number of midges ensure that many flowers are pollinated. So the cacao flower has no use for bees, moths, bats or birds. All it needs are these tiny flies.


A male Forcipomyia midge © Christophe Quintin, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Traditionally, cacao has been grown in shaded areas intercropped with forest trees that were spared when the forest was cleared for cultivation. Today, cacao trees often grow in open plantations, which do not have the damp and shady conditions required by biting midge larvae. As a consequence, on average only three out of 1000 flowers become pollinated and produce seed pods. Also, within commercial plantations, the time of peak flower abundance is out of sync with the peaking of midge populations. The loss of midge habitat explains in part why cocoa production has been decreasing, even though demand has increased annually.

There are more than 5,000 species of ceratopogonid midges. Some of them pollinate orchids and possibly many other plants: we just don’t know. A few species transmit animal diseases, and some have ruined many a picnic in the Highlands. But next time you are mobbed by midges while hiking in the woods or gardening, think chocolate. You will immediately become more judicious and forgiving.


Chocolate, ‘food of the gods’. © André Karwath, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Thistle cafe open for business

After many months of staying within walking distance of the house, I finally managed a visit to Taynish NNR on Sunday, writes Caroline Anderson.   Arriving early in the morning I had hoped to catch some of the pollinators before they became too active. 


The first thing that struck me when I got out the car was the glorious heady smell of the honeysuckle which was in bloom.  One of my very favourite perfumes – I wish it could be bottled!   The very next thing I noticed was the sound, birdsong and buzzing everywhere – this was the Taynish I know and love and it felt SO good to be back.

First a stop at the lochan boardwalk where damselflies and dragonflies flitted from plant to plant, their wings shimmering in the sunlight.

Speckled wood butterfly

Speckled Wood butterfly

Down the path, and through the wood, the Speckled Wood butterflies alighting for only a split second before taking off again.

Next stop the picnic area at the mill.  This area is normally strimmed to allow easy access to the picnic tables, however due to lockdown only essential work has been done on the reserve, for example feeding the cattle, so the grass and wildflowers have grown which meant more insects than usual.

The thistle café was open for business!  They were positively teeming with bees, beetles and flies of all sorts – all covered in pollen doing what they do best!

Tree bumblebee on Thistle

Tree bumblebee

Early bumblebee 1

Early bumblebee

Early bumblebee 2

Early bumblebee

tree bumblebee

Tree bumblebee

Then on one of the thistles, a new record for the vice county, a Ctenicera pectinicornis – check out these antennae!

Ctenicera Pectinicornis

Ctenicera pectinicornis

Black spotted longhorn beetle

Black-spotted longhorn beetle

Not to be outdone and strutting its stuff nearby was a Longhorn beetle

Even the route marker post had an occupant – a little Forest Bug in all its glorious colours, blues, pinks and oranges – amazing!

beetle 2

Forest Bug

Then joy of joys, a Marsh Fritillary in all its glory,  still a little sleepy it sat and allowed me to photograph it for some time.

Screenshot 2020-06-18 at 06.35.42

Oh Taynish! – it’s been too long, but it definitely won’t be as long until the next visit I promise!!


It’s great to welcome Caroline back to our pollinator blog, and we hope to carry regular updates from Taynish as summer progresses.

Eggs-and-bacon, boots-and-shoes, to bees are good news

Eggs-and-bacon, boots-and-shoes, lady’s slipper, hen-and-chickens and bird’s-foot-trefoil are all popular names for Lotus corniculatus, which is all over the landscape: grasslands, meadows, rock ledges, sand dunes, roadside verges and derelict sites. This perennial herb, a member of the legume family (Fabaceae, which includes peas, vetches, broad beans and clovers) is valued in many countries as pasture, hay, and silage, although it has become invasive in some parts of North America and Australia. By Athayde Tonhasca.



Bird’s-foot-trefoil © Robert Flogaus-Faust, Wikipedia Creative Commons

The bird’s-foot-trefoil is food for the larvae of several butterflies and moths, and a valuable nectar source for many other insects. And, like other legumes, it produces nutritious pollen.

However, it is not advantageous for the plant to make its pollen available to all that want it; pollen grains, which are full of proteins, amino-acids and vitamins, require a lot of energy to produce. To restrict pollen access to those insects more likely to act as pollinators, the bird’s-foot-trefoil and its relatives evolved a special type of flower. It has an irregular corolla with two lateral petals and two lower ones, which are united at their edges to form a landing platform.

As you can see in this short film clip, a bee has to alight on a flower’s platform and prise the lateral petals apart to get access to the pollen. The bee’s intention is to take all pollen to its nest and store it as food for the larvae, but some grains will become attached to the bee’s underside and released in the next flower visited, ensuring pollination.


Bird’s-foot-trefoil flower © Wilson44691, Wikipedia Creative Commons


Only some insect species, mostly solitary bees and bumble bees, are able to deal with the complex flower morphology of legumes. As a consequence, some bees became highly specialized on these plants; in fact, the decline of several bumble bee species has been linked to the reduced availability of clover, bird’s-foot-trefoil and other legumes. In Britain, three of our scarcest bee species are believed to be completely dependent on bird’s-foot-trefoil’s pollen; the pine-wood mason bee (Osmia uncinata), the mountain mason bee (O. inermis) and the wall mason bee (O. parietina).

Because of its ability to grow almost anywhere, the bird’s foot trefoil can be seen as a weed when it thrives in lawns, gardens and other places where it is not wanted. But before you reach for the weed killer bottle, have a thought about the importance of this plant for our bees and other insects.



The unfairly maligned wasps

I saw a wasp upon a wall

And did not like his face at all:

And so the creature had no time

To wonder whether he liked mine.

‘Plain Murder’, A.G. Prys-Jones.


The common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) and its close relative, the German wasp (Vespula germanica), are not likely candidates for the most loved insects, but many people are not aware of their ecological value, writes Athayde Tonhasca.

Wasps feed mostly on high-energy sugars and carbohydrates from foods such as nectar and fruit. Because they are not covered with fuzzy hairs, wasps are much less efficient pollinators than bees. Even so, they are thought to be the main pollinators of ivy, which flowers late in the year when the number of bees diminishes and wasps require more nectar to produce males and queens. Because of their high energy content, ivy fruits are important for many farmland and garden birds, so wasps contribute to their food supply.

Wasps for Jim _m204018

Vespula sp. © Caroline Anderson

Adult wasps feed on sugars, but their larvae need protein. Adults provide it by hunting soft-bodied invertebrates such as caterpillars, flies, spiders and beetle larvae.

Researchers in New Zealand estimated that wasps capture ~0.8 to 4.8 million prey items per hectare per season (1.4 to 8.1 kg of prey/ha), which is equivalent to what is taken by all insectivorous birds in the same area. The figures for Britain are likely to be lower, but nonetheless it is evident that wasps are voracious predators, and thus gardeners’ allies.


A common wasp captures a horsefly.   © Robert Goossens, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Wasps may spoil your picnic, but without them, your hamper could have been deprived of bread, beer and wine. Yeast – especially Saccharomyces cerevisiae – has been fundamental to baking, brewing and winemaking throughout human history. In nature, yeast cells are found primarily on ripe fruits during the summer months. Since yeast is not airborne, it must rely on vectors to move from plant to plant. For years it has been assumed that birds or bees were responsible for transporting yeast cells, but nobody could explain how they survived the winter. Italian researchers suspected that wasps were involved, because they feed on yeast-harbouring grapes, and their nests are hibernation havens for microorganisms.

The research team analysed samples from vineyards around Italy to find several species and hundreds of strains of yeast in the wasps’ guts. Some were related to wine strains of S. cerevisiae, others were similar to bread strains. Also, yeast survived the winter in the insects’ guts, and was transferred to the larvae via the food regurgitated by the queen. Other organisms such as birds may be involved in the life cycle of yeasts, but wasps seem to be especially important.

Common Wasp nest

Common wasp nest © Richerman, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Wasps are also master engineers. They build their nest with a strong, lightweight and waterproof paper-like material produced by a mix of saliva and scrap wood, which is chewed to a pulp. The queen kick starts it by building a column and coating it with a chemical that repels ants. Then she builds cells around it, all in clusters of hexagonal units. Workers expand the nest by building more cells, ventilating them by vibrating their wings. The cells’ hexagonal configuration maximises strength and efficiency, as this design demands the least amount of energy and building material.

So next time someone asks you what’s the point of wasps, you can say they are fundamental for nature and for us, and they are fascinating creatures with complex social organisation and efficiency. They may be a nuisance now and then, but possible clashes with us are easily avoided.

Wasps are not aggressive outside the nest; when they hover persistently over your bottle of lemonade or sandwich, they are only interested in the food and will not deliberately attack you. The best strategy to avoid a close encounter is by minimizing the chances of attracting them. Do not leave food exposed; keep it in sealed containers and put away any rubbish into lidded bins. If a wasp flies towards your food, wait for it to fly away; flailing your arms increases the chances of entrapping the wasp, which could then sting you.

However, wasps will defend their nest aggressively if disturbed or threatened. If you find yourself near a nest, retreat without producing much vibration or noise. Take care with lawnmowers and other motorized equipment because they may trigger a defensive reaction.