Walking with bumblebees

On a breezy afternoon in early May I completed my first BeeWalk for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, recording the bees I encountered during an hour-long walk along a chosen transect. My route lies on the remnants of Jurassic reefs; an ancient landscape of corallian rag and kimmeridge clay.  Where bees buzz today, gryphaea once clung, and ammonites swam; while just across the road, in 1879, the skeleton of the Cumnor dinosaur (Camptosaurus) was found; a corpse that had floated out to sea and become fossilised in the clay.

Despite an overcast sky, bees buzzed around the bluebells and clambered over the spires of bugle and yellow archangel as I made my way along the first section of my walk.

At first I had been a little daunted by the task of setting up a transect on the BeeWalk website. But once logged in I found the site easy to navigate, and a map tool made it simple to mark out my route, which I divided into four sections, each one characterised by different habitats.

Starting up on the top of the corallian ridge, section 1 follows the course of one of several streams that bisect the length of the escarpment, causing steep chasms that scar the hill. At first the path is narrow, hemmed in by hedge on one side and the sloping side of the ash copse on the other, before opening out on to the first of two meadows.


Out in the open, the meadows dance with bright buttercups; a sight that proves as irresistible to me as it does to the bees. Aided by a bumblebee field guide app, I recorded my first sightings: common carder bees, and bumblebees red-tailed, buff-tailed, and white-tailed; nine in all – busily feeding on the spring flowers.


At the bottom of the first meadow, there’s a tiny chalk stream to cross, edged by water mint, and full of calcified wonders. Beyond it the second field is flat: it too ending in a stream together with a bank of high sedges that mark the end of section 1.


From there it’s into the hollow lane; overhung with hawthorn and elder; banked by nettles and ground ivy. A red-tailed bumblebee intent on a patch of animal-dug earth buzzed around my feet; her low, zig-zagging flight characteristic of a queen seeking a nest site. Moving on I spotted a common carder bee and a tree bumblebee.


The path climbs and, at the top, opens out to give views of Wytham Woods. Here I turned to head up the lane that I’ve marked as section 3 of my walk. It takes me past old stone cottages and undulating red roofs, where tiny early bumblebee workers foraged on clumps of green alkanet.


The last lap of my walk skirts a grazed field, where the growing lambs and their dams idle. Swathes of alkanet hosted two more early bumblebee workers; my last sightings of the day.  At the end of the field the path meets with the start of section 1, and my walk is complete.


Back home I went over the photographs I’d taken and, aided by the ID sheet on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s website, confirmed, as best I could, the bees I had seen. Identifying bumblebees is not easy, and will take practice. Logging in to the BeeWalk site I entered my first sightings; data that will add to our knowledge about bumblebee populations and will help the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to monitor the way these change over time.

To find out more do visit the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and BeeWalk websites.

To help identify the bees that you see you can download the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s ID sheet here, or Birdguide’s Bumblebee Field Guide app here.

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