Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

A GREAT advantage of being a Wharfedale Naturalist is that I am part of a network, an ever-expanding web of connections. It brings me stories for these Notes, and can supply expert advice. There’s always someone who knows the answer to my questions – or who knows someone who probably does. A perfect example of this occurred last month.

The son and daughter-in-law of a veteran WNS member (past Secretary, President and Recorder) made an exciting discovery in their Baildon garden. Feeding on her sweet peas, Rachel spotted a spectacular insect – bumblebee-shape but not furry - and huge. It could have been threatening but somehow wasn’t – posing calmly for photographs on the pink blossom. Even more impressive than its size was its colour: black shiny body and broad, dark-veined wings suffused with rich purple, reminding Rachel of stained glass.

Knowing it was something rare, they contacted the Bumblebee Conservation Society, and the excitement grew. It was a Violet Carpenter Bee and the notes and photos were passed on to the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS). Then confirmation came – their record was officially authenticated, the most northerly record of this bee, generally found on the Continent or even in parts of Asia. The nearest was in Leicester in 2007!

Violet Carpenter bees are solitary. The female excavates a hole and chamber in dead wood and there lays her eggs, provisioning each one with a supply of nectar and pollen. Various reference works we consulted gave little detail about just how an insect (no teeth, remember) manages to do this, though one source did mention its exceptionally strong jaws. The next exciting instalment in the Baildon saga was that Rachel discovered the nest hole in a dead stump bought to grow mushrooms. Sawdust at the base gave the game away: and there was a neat circular hole about a centimetre in diameter. When Richard took a look, the bee poked her head out to look at him. Presumably she was busy collecting pollen for her brood when Rachel first spotted her – sweet peas definitely top of the menu.

So, we now have evidence of a population, not just one vagrant bee. It’s both a climate change indicator and a feature of our exceptionally hot summer. To secure a record like this certain factors are necessary: you need people who look and who know enough to notice when something is unusual. Then they need to make use of a network of experts. I’ve benefitted from touching the web of connection as an interested receiver.