Ridgeway Bees

Ridgeway Bees on knapweed.

The reason for doing this small body of research is my hope that I will change your perspective.  Naturally, when we traverse the Ridgeway we enjoy the landscape, with its large skies and breathtaking views.  However, if we look closely at the overgrown no man’s land hugging each side of the Ridgeway path, we might just discover the busy lives of bees and the beautiful flowers they forage upon.  This theatre of the tiny is just as awe inspiring as the grand vistas we see on the horizon.

Ridgeway Signpost. Bury Down and Sparshold Firs.

This article review the bees I encountered along the Ridgeway during the summer of 2022.  I visited the following sections of the Ridgeway: Middlehill Down which is south of Wantage; Bury Down near West Ilsley; White Horse Hill south of Uffington.

I walked along these parts of the Ridgeway, with a camera and tripod, and recorded the bees I encountered.  At home, I cross-referenced the footage with a guidebook: ‘Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland’.

First Attempt To Find Ridgeway Bees – Middlehill Down, near Wantage.

Map of Middlehill Down near Wantage. Green dotted line shows the Ridgeway.

The Ridgeway at Middlehill Down intersects the B4494 road on a right-angled bend.  Here I can recount numerous times seeing a prostrate cyclist with his crumpled bike or glimpsing the chassis of an upturned car in a field further up the hill.  Parking is provided either side of the highway and this would be my starting point.  Look left and right, and left again when crossing; this is the road where crazy people drive.

Large Garden Bumblebee Bombus Ruderatus. Bees like this one were found on the Ridgeway.
Large Garden Bumblebees (Bombus Ruderatus)

It was the fifth of June, having rained earlier in the afternoon the verges along the path were green and lush.  The previous precipitation had probably suppressed the activity of Ridgeway insects, yet I heard the reassuring hum of humble-bees.  With bumblebees congregating on the flowering thistles, I waded clumsily through nettles and brambles.  I later identified them as large garden bumblebees (bombus ruderatus), with their lovely orangey-yellow stripes around the thorax.  

After spending a pleasant hour with these creatures, and with no other bee species being spotted, I called it a day.

Visit to Bury Down (near West Ilsley).

Map showing the Ridgeway passing through Bury Down, near West Ilsley.

I visited Bury Down, near West Ilsley, on the fourteenth of June.  This section of the Ridgeway is served with two car parks and interpretation boards.  In addition, it overlooks the A34 dual carriageway and the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.  The views here are stunning, and it is a great spot for a picnic.

Oxford University Department Of Biology Field Study at Bury Down near West Ilsley.

I followed the Ridgeway in a north-westerly direction in the hope of finding bees.  Having walked a short distance from the carpark, a notice caught my eye.  ‘Please keep off the verges, thanks’, it directed.  On closer inspection the Department of Biology, from Oxford University, were doing a study to find out what can be done to bring more ‘native plants, insects and other wildlife to the area’.  I concluded that perhaps all was not well with the wild native plants and creatures.  As chance would have it, I observed something which perhaps got to the crux of what was going wrong with the environment in this area.

The Crop Sprayer

Crop sprayer at Bury Down near West Isley.

You could hear this machine a mile off.  A winged yet non-levitating vehicle, spewing a fine mist over the oil seed rape.  I am sure farmers would say this is a safe practice and doesn’t harm nature.  Like they said a few years ago with neonicotinoids, or like what their grandfathers said with DDT, or like what their great grandfathers said with lead arsenate.  So what makes them right this time?

However, in these circumstances would I see any Ridgeway bees?  Amongst the long grass I found pockets of wild flowers.  It followed that there would be flying insects including butterflies and bees.  I set up my tripod and camera, then observed.  

On one tall, flowering plant (possibly sainfoin), a small, brown bumblebee foraged.  I later identified this as a shrill carder bee (bombus sylvarum).  Furthermore, on a kidney vetch (anthyllis vulneraria) a yellow and black bumblebee hovered and this appears to be a garden bumblebee (bombus hortorum).  Interestingly, there were a couple of insects on a buttercup flower mating, which I couldn’t identify as bees yet were amusing to watch.

After spending pleasant hours amongst flora and insects, I returned to the car.

White Horse Hill To Waylandsmithy – Looking For Ridgeway Bees.

Map of White Horse Hill and the Ridgeway.

I got up early and drove to White Horse Hill; it was the summer solstice.  I set-up the camera and tripod on the hillside to capture the rising sun.  Even though it was the apex of summer, nonetheless I felt the chilliness during the morning dawn.  As always, the fiery, yellow ball rose above the horizon and I knew the day would be glorious.

Summer Solstice sunrise 2022 looking towards Dragon Hill/White Horse Hill.
Ridgeway path with bumblebees (Bees) in the foreground.

Thereafter, I made my way across the meadow and headed for the Ridgeway.  This section of the path is well kept: no ruts, no potholes; no deep puddles.  Thistles were in force along the verges, with their magnificent amethyst crowns.  A plethora of Ridgeway bees flocked to these prickly plants, however two species dominated; the shrill carder bee and the large garden bumblebee (bombus ruderatus).  

Furthermore, thistles weren’t the only flowering plant in bloom that day.  The lesser knapweed (centaurus nigra), whose flower looks like a pineapple with a purple mop of hair, was abundant.  Again, they were popular with Ridgeway bees.

Waylandsmithy

With my preoccupation with flying insects, I was unaware of my closeness to Waylandsmithy.  Here the Ridgeway was bordered on both sides with tall trees and consequently the bees were not so profuse.  Breaking off from the main path, I followed a fenced pathway which led me into a liminal place: large standing stones; sunken chambers; trees carved with the names of previous visitors; a place of pagan rituals; yes the fairies do live here! 

I had lunch and rested in the dappled light before returning to the White Horse Hill car park.  On my way back, I discovered another species of bumblebee foraging on a flowering knapweed and accompanied by a shrill carder bee.  It was completely black apart from a red abdomen and known as the red-tailed cuckoo bee (bombus rupestris).  This was the perfect end to this walk.

Conclusion

Red-tailed cuckoo bee foraging on a knapweed along the Ridgeway.
Red-tailed Cuckoo Bee (Bombus Rupestris)

Being in possession of a field guide to bees, I didn’t imagine how few of the 250 species I would see.  This might be due to my inexperience with spotting these insects.  However, the Ridgeway mostly lies adjacent to arable land which is managed, in part, by crop spraying.  I strongly suspect this activity would be detrimental to Ridgeway bees.

I had hours of pleasure by ambling along sections of the Ridgeway and through immersing myself in books on bees and wild flowers.  It is my hope you will consider visiting the Ridgeway with a new mindfulness about the world of the tiny.


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