The Long-horned Bee, a Victim of Changing Times

Tuesday 2nd July 2024

Long-horned Bee nesting site beside meadow © Andrew Whitehouse

… a blog written by Kernow Wyls – People for Pollinators Conservation Officer, Scott Martin, and Life on the Edge Conservation Officer, Sam Skevington. 

As the rolling emerald hills of Devon and Cornwall give way to the Atlantic’s beating waves, a landscape of soft rock cliffs and verdant flower-rich meadows clings both to the edge of the land, but to the edge of survival. Nationally, 97% of flower-rich grasslands were lost between the 1930s and the mid 1980s, but here on the south-western tip of our island you can find vestiges of a rich and biodiverse habitat that fosters a wealth of plant and invertebrate species. If you were to walk in one of these meadows in May as the spring rains give way to the warmth of the summer sun, you might spot the bright yellow flowers of Meadow Vetchling, Kidney Vetch, and Bird’s-foot Trefoils shining out amongst the lush green grasses. Sitting and listening, you may hear a low humming and catch sight of a curious little bee buzzing around industriously between the brightly flowered legumes. This bee stands out, for its head seems ornamented by a large pair of horns that are almost the length of its body. These are in fact the bee’s antennae, and you have seen a Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis). This rare and endearing little bee is the male of the species, whereas the female has slightly more modest antennae being roughly the length of her thorax.

A layperson might assume that all bees are eusocial and live in complex hives like honeybees, but astonishingly around 95% of bee species in the UK are solitary bees like mining bees, mason bees, and leaf cutter bees. These solitary species nest alone and in the case of the Long-horned Bee, a mining bee, underground. A female Long-horned Bee seeks out sparsely vegetated light soils in warm south facing slopes in which to excavate her nest. The soft, rocky cliffs and promontories of the Devonian and Cornish coasts prove ideal real estate for these bees who, despite being solitary, will form aggregations much like neighbourhoods in the most desirable areas. Within these burrows, the females create chambers in which to rear their larvae provisioned with bee bread, a golden pellet of pollen bound with nectar. Much like us, a Long-horned Bee requires a source of easy and convenient food in proximity to their home. Their food of choice being the protein rich pollen of legumes, ideal for their growing larvae. These crucial legumes flourish in the unimproved grasslands and hay meadows which once carpeted our land.

Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis) Range

The Long-horned Bee was once widespread across southern Britain, both within our rural hinterland and along our spectacular coastline. Sadly, due to the loss of our species-rich grassland, it now survives at only a few dozen sites nationally, most of which are concentrated along the south coast, with the Devonian and Cornish coasts being vital bastions of suitable habitat for the species. The decline of the Long-horned Bee is indicative of how many invertebrate species have been affected by the modernisation of agricultural practices in the last century. As farmers desperately try to scrape a living from the land, intensification, overgrazing of meadows, and overuse of pesticides has driven many species including the Long-horned Bee towards extinction. The future of the Long-horned Bee and many other species are dependent on changing the way that our land is farmed, to be more equitable for farmers and wildlife. As such, Buglife is engaged in two projects, Life on the Edge in Devon and Kernow Wyls (Wild Cornwall), to work with landowners, providing free advice and guidance, that along with partner organisations will allow for restoration of hay meadows and the expansion of species-rich grassland that will benefit numerous species including the Long-horned Bee. 

Along the rugged and windswept coast of Devon and Cornwall, Life on the Edge and Kernow Wyls seek to restore populations of the Long-horned Bee and 29 more invertebrate species. These species include the Six-banded Nomad Bee (Nomada sexfasciata), a critically endangered cuckoo bee that parasitises the Long-horned Bee. Much like their namesake, cuckoo bees lay their eggs in host species’ nests. Once hatched, the cuckoo bee larvae devour the host bee’s store of bee bread. Within the UK, the Six-banded Nomad is found solely on Prawle Point, therefore efforts to protect both it and its host, the Long-horned Bee are of critical importance.

Both Life on the Edge and Kernow Wyls are funded by National Heritage Lottery Fund and are entering their implementation phases which will create opportunities for local communities, parishes and schools to get involved through volunteer days, habitat management and creation workshops, wildlife gardening, and species monitoring.

Intensive Arable © Tobie Loates

Life on the Edge will work with farmers and landowners providing free advice on agri-environmental schemes and creating bespoke land management agreements to regenerate species-poor grassland, create new flower-rich diverse meadows, and revert intensively farmed arable land to species-rich pasture. Collaboration between Buglife, South Devon National Landscape, and landowners including the National Trust and farmers will ensure the further creation of wildflower seed donor sites within these hotspots, thereby maintaining the local genetic stock of Devon’s wildflower species. Careful management of grazing will also be crucial to Life on the Edge as well-timed grazing by livestock such as cattle and sheep maintains a diverse mosaic of habitats along the coast by reducing scrub encroachment into the diverse flower-rich meadows on which the Long-horned Bee and other pollinators depend. Livestock farming often receives a lot of negative press these days, but we hope that by advising farmers, we can support them in creating flourishing species-rich meadows to strengthen the foothold of endangered species so we might move towards the restoration of Devon’s biodiversity that was lost in the last century.

A meadow on the North Cornwall coast in need of some restoration © Scott Martin

In Cornwall, the population of Long-horned Bee has declined by over 50%, with all key nesting sites currently assessed as vulnerable. The greatest threat is limited foraging resources, particularly the rarity of flowering legumes, either due to the abandonment of cliff-top grazing, overgrazing in crucial summer months, or the intensification of agricultural practices.  The other greatest threat is loss of suitable nesting sites due to landslides caused by increased severity of storms. These bees really do live on the brink in a dynamic and everchanging landscape.

Kernow Wyls – People for Pollinators, will create and enhance habitat for the Long-horned Bee along the Cornish coast, restoring 25 hectares of diverse wildflower habitat along B-Lines between Padstow and The Towans on the north coast, and Rame Head and Roseland Peninsular on the south. Our work with the National Trust, Cornwall Council, Cornwall Wildlife Trust, private landowners and others will also help other rare and threatened invertebrates, including four national priority species. Through planting more of species’ foodplants, creating additional nesting habitat, removing scrub, and raising awareness for invertebrates, we hope to bolster populations of these charismatic insects.

Wildflowers clutch to the cliff tops of Cornwall’s south coast © Scott Martin

Next time you are walking along the dramatic coasts of South Devon and Cornwall, look beyond the golden beaches, craggy cliffs, and roaring waves, and keep an eye out for the telltale headwear of the Long-horned bee. These endearing little fellows are an indicator that you are near one of the last few wildflower grasslands that scatter our coasts. And know when you see this industrious little bee buzzing from flower to flower, that Buglife and our partners are working just as hard to protect the Long-horned bee and the wildflower meadows on which it and countless other invertebrates depend.

Main Image Credit: Male Long-horned Bee © John Walters