Rare bumblebee rediscovered after 88 years

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Southern cuckoo bumblebee (Bombus vestalis). Photo: Nick Owens

A rare bumblebee species not sighted since 1926 has been recorded in a park in Rathfarnham, Dublin. Eddie Hill, a gardener at St. Enda’s Park and avid bumblebee recorder for the National Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme, spotted the unusual looking bees feeding on flowers last week within the grounds of the park.  Having sent photographs and sent two specimens to the National Biodiversity Data Centre, ecologists Dr. Tomás Murray and Dr. Úna Fitzpatrick confirmed that it was the rare Southern cuckoo bumblebee, a species not recorded in Ireland for 88 years.

Eddie Hill said: “I’ve been interested in bumblebees for the past two years after learning how to identify them at a National Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme workshop.  With my work, I’m in St. Enda’s most days, so when I saw these bees pollinating flowers in the park, I just knew they were different.”

Ecologist Dr. Tomás Murray, project co-ordinator of the Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme, said: “Overall, 30% of the 102 species of bee are endangered and, given how long it’s been since this bee was recorded, we thought we’d never see it again.  Our recorders in the monitoring scheme have been passing on photos of suspected sightings, so we did get a little excited when we received Eddie’s photos, but were delighted when we confirmed it was the Southern cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus vestalis.”

The Southern cuckoo bumblebee was last recorded near Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow, in 1926 by Arthur Wilson Stelfox, a renowned entomologist working in the National Museum in Dublin at the time.  That it hasn’t been recorded since begs the question: where has it been?  “Like other cuckoo bees, it’s unusual in the sense that it doesn’t make its own nest, but invades a host bee’s nest, kills the queen, then uses the host workforce to rear its young.  Being what is known as a ‘social parasite’, it will always have a much lower population size than its host, making it more vulnerable to extinction.”, added Murray. “So it could be that it almost died out, but is now expanding again, or that it has simply been rare, but overlooked as, up until the National Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme, there haven’t been enough skilled people looking for it.”

Run and maintained by the Office of Public Works, St. Enda’s Park consists of nearly 50 acres of parkland with a diversity of flora and fauna, as well as the Pádraig Pearse Museum, visitor centre and a nature study room.  Eddie Hill knows of at least six bumblebee nests currently within the grounds, illustrating how valuable these green spaces are within urban areas in Ireland.  “I’ve successfully roped many of my colleagues in work into photographing insects for me, so now that I have found such a lovely rare bumblebee, we’ve all been given a boost to go out and try to record a good few more species for the Data Centre!”

For further information contact: Dr. Tomás Murray, National Biodiversity Data Centre

Tel.: +353-51-306241

Email: tmurray@biodiversityireland.ie