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New bee species in London garden generates buzz

A new British bee has turned out to be an overlooked, long-time resident.

Museum entomologist David Notton spotted an unknown single male Nomada facilis bee in his London garden last year, but has since uncovered examples in the Museum's collection dating back to at least 1802.

Back garden discovery

Notton, the Museum's Senior Curator of Hymenoptera, collected the first known British example of the new bee in May 2017. He says, 'I grow British wildflowers in my garden to attract bees, and I'm always looking to see what visits.'

He identified the insect as the species Nomada facilis, which was confirmed with DNA sequencing by fellow Museum scientist Hannah Norman.

As the bee was not known to live in Britain but is found elsewhere in Europe, Notton checked the Museum's historic bee collection to see if there were any other specimens.

Nomada integra, seen above, is a closely related species that is easy to confuse with Nomada facilis © Steven Falk


When Notton checked the Museum's bees, he found earlier examples of N. facilis that had indeed been collected in Britain. They had been misidentified as a closely related and similar looking species, Nomada integra.

Of these specimens, the earliest N. facilis was collected sometime before 1802, and the last in 1950.

Notton says, 'This showed that the bee is a long-term - though very rare - resident of Britain, rather than a recent arrival.'

A cuckoo in the nest

Nomada facilis belongs to a group called nomad bees, named after their wandering lifestyle. These bees do not build or provision their own nests, but instead lay their eggs in the nest of mining bee species.

The nomad eggs hatch first, then the larvae eat their neighbours' supplies of pollen and nectar.

Different nomad bees target different species of mining bee. Although Notton can't be certain, he thinks N. facilis in Britain is likely targeting the hawk's-beard mining bee, Andrena fulvago.

The hawk's-beard mining bee, Andrena fulvago, is likely to be the species that Nomada facilis preys on © Jeremy Early

Looking for more

This is the first time N. facilis has been collected in Britain since 1950, suggesting it is a very rare species and probably declining. One reason for this is that it relies on the hawk's-beard mining bee, which is also rare.

Although N. facilis is a parasite, Notton says people shouldn't be too worried about its effect on its host.

He says, 'A parasite will always be rarer than its host species, and the existence of a stable population of parasites is generally evidence that a host is doing well. The best situation is a healthy population of both.

'Both species are also plant pollinators, so are useful for UK biodiversity.'

He is spreading word of his discovery in the hopes that other examples of this species may be found. 'I hope that people will look through old collections, and look out for them when they do fieldwork. It would be nice to know it's not so rare.'

A new name

Since the bee had no common name previously, Notton has coined the name hawk's-beard nomad bee. It is named after the hawk's-beard wildflowers, which have small, yellow, daisy-like flowers favoured by many solitary bees.

Many new insect species have established themselves in Britain in recent years, helped by the warming climate and imports of plants and other materials in which they live or nest. Notton has recently found two other new bee arrivals living in London.

He says, 'It's important to know which pollinating insects we have in Britain so we can monitor and understand the pollination of wildflowers and crops, which ultimately keep us fed.'