Bilberry Bumblebee, Bombus monticola
I have found this scarce upland bumblebee at three locations in Monmouthshire: the high moorland between Blaenavon and Blorenge; Coity Tip reserve on the other side of Blaenavon; and the extensive heather-covered hillside a few miles north of Abergavenny.
It is probably best to look for it in August when the heather is in full bloom. In spring and early summer it needs Bilberry, which grows among the heather but which flowers much earlier. It benefits also from Gorse, clovers, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and other upland flowers.
This is a colourful bee with yellow, black, faint grey bands and a striking red abdomen.
There is a slight resemblance to the male Red-tailed Bumblebee B. lapidarius but monticola is smaller, broader in the body and has four red abdominal segments (right) unlike lapidarius with only three (below). They can easily be told apart in the field.
It is said to be declining everywhere. I suspect that the overgrazing of upland moors by sheep, the reduction of heathers and subsequent spread of bracken is not helping.
On my short visit to the Abergavenny site a few days ago I found between 30 and 40 bumblebees of which about a quarter were monticola, alongside various white-tailed species, Common Carder and Red-tailed. Without knowing the results of recent surveys, this seems to me to be still a healthy population.
The continued existence of this beautiful bee in Monmouthshire is probably dependent on the deliberate preservation of moorland with its characteristic mix of plants – and fewer sheep, if any.