Identifying bumblebees on a wildlife walk in the Kent Downs
Updated: Jan 11
As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to the Kent Downs, writer Harriet O'Brien encounters bees, butterflies and bluebells on a wildlife tour with the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership and the Kent Wildlife Trust
‘It’s typical - the girls do all the work,’ said our team leader. The males, she explained, laze around drinking nectar while the females busily collect pollen.
I was among a group of six who had gathered at Whinless Down on the very fringes of Dover for an afternoon learning how to identify bumblebees. Sounds effete? Well not really: on this edge of England bumblebees can be regarded as a sort of litmus as to climate change. There are about 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, eight of which are commonly seen. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is currently orchestrating a countrywide survey to take stock of the numbers of these endearing-looking insects and to establish why there has been a decline in population, and partly to monitor the new arrivals from the south – particularly in Kent where they first set wing in the country.
Gathering relevant data about bumblebees isn’t entirely a simple matter so, to help the public participate, the conservation organisation The White Cliffs Countryside Partnership was running a bumblebee identification field workshop. It was one of a great range of free events and guided walks that this preservation body regularly offers.
We learnt how those lazy males have no sting: that’s a female thing. We attuned ourselves as to differing stripes, from red-tailed bees to white-tailed bees with three yellow bands. We took note of a variety of fake bumblebees ‒ insects cleverly masquerading as bees to discourage potential predators. Then we started out on a bee walk, the idea being that we could then set a route to walk every month, sending our sightings back to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The beauty of spending an afternoon with nature conservationists is that you see and learn so much. Quite apart from gathering bee specifications, we took in a particularly interesting downland area which is in the fascinating process of habitat restoration. Covering just 19 or so hectares, Whinless Down is a designated Local Nature Reserve noted for the rare species its dramatic chalkland supports. Containing Bronze Age burial mounds it was grazed for many centuries and is home to a wonderful range of plants including bee orchids and harebells, and butterflies such as the little seen adonis blue and the silver-spotted skipper.
In the 1950s grazing here stopped and thorny scrub started to spread, with the result that far less wildlife was able to flourish. Now a scrub clearance programme is re-establishing the open chalkland in which so many species thrive and this is being maintained thanks to grazing by specially introduced konik ponies and Dexter cattle. I came away from my afternoon excursion quite as inspirited by the conservation measures as by my new bee knowledge.
Revival; regeneration: that’s been the remarkable success story in wildlife stewardship in the Kent Downs over the last couple or so decades. The next day I began to appreciate quite what a heartening process this continues to be when I took a walk at the Lydden Temple Ewell Reserve with Paul Hadaway, Living Landscape Team Leader at Kent Wildlife Trust. A 90-hectare National Nature Reserve managed by the trust, this striking stretch of chalk downs just inland from Dover offers a great swathe of open land along with marginal woodland, and it commands stupendous views. It was probably grazed even in pre-Roman times, said Paul, and it looks today much as it would have done many centuries ago. However, it, too, has been through a fairly recent process of reclamation, scrub having been cleared and the open land now maintained through carefully managed grazing by cattle.
We stopped to look at a milkwort flower at our feet: it’s a plant growing close to the ground and an indication, said Paul, of very healthy chalkland. On hands and knees, examining a small patch about 30cm around it, we noted a fabulous natural tapestry of mouse ear hawkweed, wild carrot, wild marjoram, birds foot trefoil and more. With all this burgeoning vegetation insect life has been flourishing, Paul added - and they’ve successfully reintroduced the wart biter cricket here (it’s the largest cricket in the UK). Of course it follows that bird life is rich, too: green woodpeckers, yellowhammers, linnets, skylarks. They’ve also been reintroducing red kites and buzzards. We stood up and gazed across the valley, taking in a distant kestrel circling over prey. As we walked on Paul talked of the great rewards in maintaining ecosystems – both for wildlife and for the enormous benefit of people, too.
From restoration to creation: the other side of Dover, at the foot of the White Cliffs, lies Samphire Hoe. It’s an extraordinary, 30-hectare nature reserve. It isn’t only a relatively new reserve; it is new land, too, for Samphire Hoe was created in the late 1980s and 1990s from chalk marl dug out from under the sea when the Channel Tunnel was being drilled.
Fast forward nearly 20 years and it is now rich in more than 200 species of plants, 10 or more species of dragonflies - and some truly eye-catching copper butterflies on the day I was there. Bumblebees thrive here as well – and some of them have no doubt newly arrived from across the Channel.
Written by Harriet O'Brien