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Bees are our most important pollinators. Without them we’d lose many of the world’s flowering plants and crops. Yet these vital insects are in decline, mainly due to human activity. Dorset Museum’s bee collection tells of a bygone age, when capturing insects to pin in displays was all the rage. But it’s also an important record of the county’s bee species in the early 1900s.
Dr Cyril D Day (1885-1968) was a renowned Dorset insect collector. He created a large collection of insects in a cabinet containing 20 trays, which he donated to Dorset Museum in 1952. One of these trays is devoted to bees and wasps.
Day’s fascinating and diverse collection contains solitary bees, bumble bees and honey bees. Some insects are paired with information about their life cycles, others with tiny drawings of anatomical features.
Bees are some of the hardest working creatures on the planet, and our lives would be very different if they became extinct. They are responsible for pollinating about 250,000 species of flowering plants, and approximately 400 different food crops.
Bees are crucial for maintaining biodiversity (the range of different species that live in a particular area).
Bees also provide us with honey, not only valued as a food, but also for its medicinal properties.
Without pollinators, our beans on toast, fruit salads, bars of chocolate and cups of coffee might be off the menu forever!
Pollination happens when bees visit flowers to gather nectar and pollen. As they visit each flower, the pollen catches on their bodies and passes to the next flower, so fertilizing them. Bees don’t just feed themselves, but collect food for the whole colony.
Other animals, such as beetles, butterflies and bats, are also pollinators, but because they only gather enough food to eat themselves, they don’t visit as many flowers as bees.
That’s why bees are the most important pollinators.
Some bees gather nectar and store it in a stretchy pouch in the gut known as a ‘honey stomach’. Others collect pollen grains, packing them in ‘baskets’ on their rear legs.
Why are bees under threat?
In the UK, we have already lost around 13 species of bees, and another 35 are currently at risk. The biggest single cause of bee decline is the intensification of farming, which has decimated the wildflower meadows where they feed (see Wiltshire Museum’s page). Bees are also dying due to pesticides, disease and the effects of climate change.
In the late 18th century, people had a fascination with the natural world and its ‘curiosities’ – including insects. Initially, the trend was for collecting colourful butterflies and iridescent beetles, but later this extended to other insects including bees.
Collectors studied these creatures and their life cycles by pinning the dead insects to boards and classifying them by their physical features. Today, the focus has shifted to studying these intricate and complex insects by their behaviour in their natural habitat.
The preferred way to display and study these prized insects was to pin them into display boxes using special insect pins. The pins were pushed through the thorax of the insects while they were still fresh, then the legs and antennae placed in a natural position. This allowed the specimens to be handled and studied without damaging them.
Dorset’s downland and wildflower meadows are home to a rich array of insects, including bees. The name for bees in local dialect is ‘Dumbledores’.
Bees have long featured in local folklore. Traditional customs include:
“A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.”
The bee collection at the museum includes the female Panurgus banksianus with a golden brush on each hind leg. This helps her carry pollen loads back to her underground nest.
Silverlake in West Dorset is an example of a sustainable building development where the focus is on providing and protecting wildlife habitats.
The development is surrounded by heathland which was intensively quarried for sand and gravel. Now that quarrying has stopped, Silverlake has funded a survey of bee and wasp species to see what species are returning to the landscape.
So far, they have logged 46 bee and 15 wasp species. Each new property has ‘bee bricks’ to provide a home for solitary bees.
How you can help bees and other pollinators
The Bee Keepers Association – Gardening for bees.
The Soil Association – Five ways you can help bees.
The Soil Association – Bee organic.
The Wildlife Trusts – Save bees and pollinators.
Watch Jimmy’s Big Bee Rescue on Channel 4.
Males great bustards perform spectacular courtship displays, gathering at a ‘lek’ or small display ground to try to impress the females.
The great bustard has a dignified slow walk but tends to run when disturbed, rather than fly.
The hen-bird on display at The Salisbury Museum was one of the last great bustards to be eaten in the town!