Whitlingham Country Park on the other side of the River Yare is the local patch for naturalist James Emerson, but when he comes north of the river to NWT Thorpe Marshes he has a knack of finding unusual invertebrates. That was true in early August, 8 August to be precise, when James sent news of red bartsia bees.
I know the flower well enough. It’s interesting in its own right, being semi-parasitic on the roots of grasses. It’s better known from limestone grassland but also grows on dry paths at Thorpe Marshes: perhaps bits of rubble provide suitable conditions.
It had passed me by that red bartsia has its own bee. I felt better about that when I saw in the Field Guide to Bees that its distribution is shown as almost entirely south of London. These things change, with climate and/or alert observers. Three days later, I went to the biggest patch of red bartsia on the reserve and there they were, about half a dozen small bees with white stripes on their near-black abdomen, buzzing to and fro on the bartsia’s flowers. The distinct stripes find their way into the bee’s scientific name of Melitta tricincta – tricincta means three-banded.
I have been unable to find them since. Though the bee field guide says their season is late July to early September, it seems likely that this hot summer it’s been an early season.
For a moment I hoped this was a ‘hold-the-front-page’ moment for Thorpe Marshes, but Norfolk’s solitary bee recorder, Tim Strudwick, tells me he’s had a quite a few records, 15 or so, in the last decade. A nice element to that, says Tim, is that records come from regular naturalists spotting something out of the ordinary, rather than bee ‘experts’. I know I’ll be on the look out for red bartsia bees whenever I find a patch of red bartsia flowers.
Chris Durdin is an NWT volunteer and leads monthly wildlife walks at NWT Thorpe Marshes. Details of monthly walks can be found here.