The sighting of a rare bee at White Park Bay earlier this month has been celebrated by local conservationists.
Volunteer butterfly surveyor, Patrick Barton, was scouring the grasslands for the colourful wings of butterflies when something less flashy – but just as captivating – grabbed his attention.
Except for the occasional flicker of translucent wings, the bees’ striped abdomen and fuzzy fox-coloured thoraxes were barely visible burrowing around on the sand amid the dried up vegetation.
“I was thrilled to see the bees. I knew something about them was different,” explained Patrick. “I had seen similar in the far north of Scotland on a family holiday years ago.”
The insects, later confirmed to be Northern Colletes bees, are classified as rare and actively breed from mid-June to late August in coastal habitat such as White Park Bay. Solitary female bees make burrows in sandy soil before getting to work laying eggs in chambers within the burrows. They will usually nest closely together at the same site but they are not social insects and act individually.
As much as 50% of the European population of the Northern Colletes bee is concentrated in the UK – specifically the North Coast of Northern Ireland and the Scottish western isles. At a time when bee populations are said to be in decline, sightings such as that of the Northern Colletes at White Park Bay are valuable as in indication of the health of local ecosystems.
Giant’s Causeway conservation expert, Dr Cliff Henry, agreed that increased bee sightings were encouraging and hoped that it was a sign their decline was slowing.
“There are 101 recorded species of bee in Ireland and unfortunately 42 of these are in decline,” said Cliff. “At White Park Bay the National Trust takes great effort to maintain the habitat in suitable condition for the bee. The level of cattle grazing is closely monitored and large areas of bramble, blackthorn and bracken have been cleared in recent years to preserve the flower-rich grassland that the bees depend on.”
Cliff also said that beautiful bees should not be confused with their more aggressive and less likable counterpart — the wasp. “Many of these rare bees are very choosy about what they eat,” he explained. “If it’s in your jam, or fruit juice, it is most likely to be a wasp.”