Dear Readers, this talk by Dr Tony Madgwick was a really nice counterpoint to the pollinators and pollination talk given by Jeff Ollerton a few weeks ago. ‘Bees in the City’ is a University of Westminster project that’s been set up to look specifically at the bees that use bee hotels – this means that the focus is on solitary bees such as our old favourites the hairy-footed flower bees. Bee hotels will be installed not only in the main University of Westminster campus on Euston Road, but also on their Chiswick and Northwick Park campuses. One very exciting feature of the project is the involvement of students and professors not only from the science departments, but also from fields such as engineering. It’s also hoped that there will be future collaboration with other academic institutions and with citizen scientists.
The main aim of the project is to look at which species of bee use bee hotels, their genetic diversity, and the parasites that are attracted to their nesting sites. It’s also hoped that the team will be able to look at the viral and bacterial load on these wild bees – honeybee hives have become very popular in London, and there is a theory that the diseases that these bees are prone to have been passed on to the wild population. The DNA can be collected from analysing the material left in the tubes once the bees have left, so it won’t be too disturbing for the bees.
The University of Westminster is also leading the way in using Automated Species ID – it’s hoped that something could be developed which could identify bees not only by their shape, but also by their buzz, and by the way that they enter and exit the bee hotel. As anyone who has used ID Apps on their phone can tell you, these things are often very hit and miss, but it would be very exciting to be able to simply film a bee on your phone and get an exact ID. The minute details that tell you which species a bee is can be very difficult to see when the insect is zooming about, as anyone who has tried to get a photo of a female hairy-footed flower bee will tell you (for some reason the males are much more laid back!).
In addition though, it’s hoped that the project will teach people a lot more about how to identify bees, starting with the students at the university but hopefully by creating new ID guides as well. As several of these talks have mentioned, unless you know what you have, how will you be able to tell what you’ve lost?
For those of us who have been contemplating sticking up a bee hotel, Dr. Madgwick has some useful advice. Firstly, find a south-facing wall at about head height. For me, this would be on the front wall of the house, so that might be a very good spot. Secondly, though, it’s important to consider what forage is available for the bees that might turn up, not just in your garden but round about, because different bees will travel different distances and have different requirements. Hairy-footed flower bees seem to like green alkanet, comfrey, dead-nettles and ground ivy, so anyone with a ‘weedy’ garden should do ok. Leafcutter bees, however, seem to like umbellifers like cow parsley and wild carrot plus thistles and daisy-type plants. All in all, it sounds as if having a neglected garden in your vicinity is probably best for these bees, and Dr Madgwick makes the point that the original home of many of these bees is loose and crumbling mortar, so a little general neglect is probably no bad thing for biodiversity (though if your chimney tumbles through the roof you’ve definitely taken thing too far!)
The Bees in the City project sounds like a very interesting enterprise, and I look forward to hearing about their discoveries. Their website is here if you want to keep yourself updated, and there is a link to the whole talk here.