[Bilberry bumblebee]

[Bilberry bumblebee]

Photo credit: Gail Hampshire

Written by Sinéad Keegan

Fire and straw

Emerging from hibernation, the soft poppy-orange

tail of [   ] hope shivers

keeps close to the cool, mossy ground, bumbling

through the microclimate of a miniature caged

moorland understory

a pause

on a droplet-bowed petal

hardy enough to brave short days

and sharp winds

overlooked by grazers


then dancing down southern slopes

and buzzing along old pine wood carpets searching

out flowering blaeberry, bramble, and white clover

ambles from pink bell to purple bloom

black berry brimming

heather banks in the asphodel light of summer evenings

Chinese lantern pollen baskets

sipping sallow

this cold-lover emerging from hibernation.

More about the bilberry bumblebee…

When I started researching the Bilberry Bumblebee [bombus monticola], I expected to write about the hope-inspiring initiative by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and the Eastern Moors Partnership to cage bilberry plants. They are monticola’s primary food source when it first emerges from hibernation but are often eaten by grazing livestock before they can mature. Then Dr Richard Comont, science manager of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, wrote to me and I knew he was the person who should speak for this striking bumblebee:

Monticola seems to like upland conditions – not necessarily high altitude, but cool and damp with lots of heather and bilberry – and so climate change is the obvious problem. We can look at better-known species with similar requirements, such as the Scotch Argus and Mountain Ringlet butterflies to get an idea of the effect that this will have on monticola, and both those species are retreating northwards and uphill at the moment – obviously that means there’s less and less suitable habitat available for the upland species.  Changes in the management of the remaining bits of suitable habitat – grazing too much/too little, letting the hills scrub over, etc – are also likely to remove the areas of flower-rich open moorland that monticola needs.

Monticola is one of a reasonable number of bumblebees that will live quite happily up on the high moors, and there are plenty of other pollinator species which could potentially fill in the gap if any one species disappeared, including feeding on bilberry plants.  The pollinator guild generally has a lot of redundancy built in as different species (of both plants and pollinators) will have good and bad years, so they all tend to be fairly generalist. Having said that: there’s a lot more to conservation than a simple, utilitarian, ‘what can they do for us?’

The Bilberry Bumblebee is our most beautiful bumblebee species, scraping an existence on the coldest, most exposed highlands. It’s a symbol of the life in those high, remote places and its struggles are symbolic of the problems that humans cause wildlife even without acting directly on them. We don’t have the right to drive it to extinction; we have a responsibility to safeguard it for future generations, both ours and theirs. And if we can’t motivate enough people that a straw- and fire-coloured teddybear of the skies isn’t worth saving then there’s something very wrong somewhere.’

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