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New bee species breeding in Britain

A bee species more commonly found in continental Europe has been spotted in Britain for the first time.

The species, Hoplitis adunca, was discovered by Museum scientist David Notton during a survey of Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park in southeast London. The bee is using bee nest boxes provided at the site.

Notton says, 'It's a great example of how important urban green spaces are for giving pollinators a home and illustrates how putting bee nesting boxes in gardens and parks can help support pollinators.’

Notton identified the bee as Hoplitis adunca by detailed comparison of its appearance with specimens in the Museum collection and the use of identification keys for British and European bees. It was confirmed using DNA analysis by colleague Dr Cuong Quoc Tang.

Despite searches of other nearby locations, so far the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park is the only site where H. adunca has been found.

It is a good habitat for the bee, thanks to a warm micro-climate, a large quantity of its preferred flower, viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare), and mud and dead wood to make nests from. 

Viper's bugloss, Echium vulgare, the preferred flower of the bee Hoplitis adunca © Le.Loup.Gris, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

No threat

Although the bee is breeding, Notton thinks it’s unlikely the species will become widespread in Britain.

He explains, 'It's at the limit of its temperature range here, and is restricted by its reliance on pollen from a specific plant called viper's bugloss.'

The new species doesn't appear to pose a threat to other pollinators, although whether it might carry disease hasn't yet been investigated.

Solitary bee

The bee lives on its own rather than in a colony and makes its nest in hollow stems or holes in wood and masonry, capped with mud.

Given its living habits the team have proposed the common name viper's bugloss mason bee.

The species is widespread in southern, eastern and central Europe, and its distribution extends east to Central Asia and north Africa.

Although it isn't known how H. adunca arrived in Britain, hole-nesting bees such as these sometimes get moved around when they nest in cavities in freight or vehicles. 

At around 12 millimetres long, viper's bugloss mason bee - the common name the team suggest using for Hoplitis adunca - is about the same size as a honey bee

Bees in Britain

More than 270 bee species live in Britain and according to Notton the picture is a mixed one:

'Some species are doing ok, while others are struggling. Habitat change, climate change and pesticides are all impacting the environment.'

Around 80 bee species can be found in Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, with about 10% of these being at some degree of risk.

Bee habitats on the site are managed by ranger Tony Day, with The Conservation Volunteers and the Land Trust working together to provide an ideal environment and help monitor populations.

Day says, 'David's discovery of Hoplitis adunca is an incredibly exciting addition to the Ecology Park's growing list of notable species and is the highlight of a considerable list of important species recorded by him this year. 

'Urban green spaces like the Ecology Park often have significant ecological value and diversity. Studies such as David's emphasise the need for their effective management and protection.

'Thanks and credit must also be given to our dedicated, hardworking volunteers who are vital in helping manage the Ecology Park habitats for the range of wildlife they support.'

An urban wildlife oasis

Created in the late 1990s on a former gasworks site, the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park consists of four acres (1.72 hectares) of freshwater wetland habitat. It is open to the public.

Simon Pile, Estates Manager South at the Land Trust, says, 'It’s fantastic that everyone’s hard work and our long-term investment in Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park are having such a wonderful impact on the environment and this bee in particular.

'We're delighted that it now calls Greenwich home and are looking forward to future research and discoveries at this little green oasis in London.'

Day concludes, 'Hopefully this discovery will motivate and inspire others to take a closer look at their own urban green spaces and become involved in their study and protection. Who knows what else may be out there?'