The mountain bumblebee

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.Heather moor

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 B. monticola 3Red-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.

b. lapidarius 1On 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.


B. monticola 1Like all bumblebees, they will not pose for the perfect shot but are always on the move to the next flower while you are pressing the button

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.


About Roger Ruston

In one of my ealiest memories I am knee-high, collecting bees from lavender in a garden on the South Downs. When I grew up I got a master's in zoology at Bristol and studied insects under Prof. Howard Hinton FRS (for those who know, that gives away my age). After several retirements from several lives I have created a wildlife garden in Monmouth, Wales, giving a space to insects, especially bees. In four years I have found 49 species of bee there and nearly twice that number in the surrounding countryside. I am a member of BWARS (Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society). My ambition is to assist local conservation projects by identifying and mapping the local bees. I think it is best to know what species we share our spaces with before they are threatened by the many human activities that can destroy bees. Ignorance is the greatest enemy.
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