The Pollinator Path: A Video Journey Among Cornwall's Rarest Bees

Embarking on an intrepid journey through Cornwall's rugged landscapes, our mission to capture one of the UK's rarest bees, the Large Scabious Mining Bee, unfolds amidst the wild beauty of a National Trust farm. Join us as we delve into the world of solitary bees, where conservation efforts are sparking hope in the most unexpected of places.

The path was a mix of grass and loose rock, with ups and downs that seemed to conspire against our hatchback car. Our vehicle's suspension hung low, weighed down by the camera gear in the trunk. Thud, scrape, rev, thud, scrape, rev. We zigzagged our way up, not quite the bee expedition we had envisioned. On either side were budding broccoli fields, with the ocean peeking from beyond the distant hedges. As a video production company based in Cornwall, we’re often swiftly transporting from the familiar to the uncharted. We arrived at a quaint National Trust farm, where the Buglife International team – dedicated to protecting "the tiny things that make the world work" – had assembled. Their massive bee nets jutted out from their backpacks, and binoculars dangled from their necks.

We were on a mission to locate and film one of the UK's rarest bees, the Large Scabious Mining Bee. This mining bee is among several species targeted by The North Cornwall B Line, a conservation project aimed at creating pollinator corridors that stretch across the South West of England. Solitary mining bees, as the name implies, live alone and typically reside in burrows, not hives. Approximately 80% of UK bees are solitary species. They come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and colors. Some, like the nomad bees, lay their eggs in other bees' nests, akin to the cuckoos of the bee world. Solitary bee populations, like most insects in the UK, are in steep decline. Once home to four scabious bee species, Cornwall now has just one – found only at the site we were visiting that day.

Bees are quick, unpredictable, and small, making them challenging subjects to film. Fortunately, our bees fed on a single flower and were confined to a small area, which should simplify the search. We were warned that we'd be lucky to even spot any bees, let alone capture them on film. Their numbers are low, and their activity is largely dictated by wind and temperature, making any sightings a matter of chance. We performed our final checks and tucked a large, antique magnifying glass into our back pocket before setting off.

We trailed the team into an expanse of seeded grass speckled with wildflowers. The farm's former appearance was evident in the distance, with well-ordered vegetable rows carved into the dark brown earth. This is Cornwall – nearly treeless, with 75% of the land managed for agricultural use and 8% occupied by urban areas. It's no wonder that breeding birds and mammals are found in only half as many locations as they were 30 years ago, and butterflies are even scarcer. Despite this, hope remains. Nature clings to life in the most unexpected places. Across the fields, wild, bushy hedgerows and triangular islands of life at the convergence of three fields provide refuge from the plow. The need for wildlife corridors to connect these biodiversity islands becomes abundantly clear.

As we walked, countless butterflies hovered just above the grass, seemingly weightless as they fluttered and paused. Signs of regenerative work were everywhere. Rows of saplings, ten trees deep, bordered the farthest field margin alongside the sea cliffs – a site of specific scientific interest (SSSI). Nick Holden, a National Trust lead ranger and our guide, remarked, "They told us trees couldn't grow here... too windy, they said... They look perfectly good to me. We're trying to give the landscape a little shelter and to increase the width of the shrub from the sea cliffs to the meadows." We continued to stroll as Nick explained the various wildflowers that had been planted and how their roots penetrated different soil depths, a common technique to kickstart healthy topsoil development.

"Well, here we are," Nick motioned for us to pass through a final gate into an expansive broccoli field. Beyond the gate, the land sloped downward, unveiling the Godrevy headland. Framed between two sea cliffs, the renowned lighthouse stood tall, with the beach extending to the west. It was breathtaking. "Not much, is it?" Nick commented, eyeing a patch of wildflowers no more than five meters wide running along the length of the broccoli field. The Buglife team had already unpacked their nets and were scouring the area as if searching for a lost coin – legs straight, backs bent, eyes focused. "This is the spot. If you're going to have any luck finding the bees, it'll be here," Nick gestured for us to take a closer look.

Tiny blue flowers dotted the border, their delicate structures defying the coastal winds. "So, this is the field scabious," said Laura, kneeling beside the plants. As the head of the North Cornwall B Line project, Laura had invited us to the bee hunt. "We spent all last summer collecting seeds and have started a makeshift nursery in Paddy's garden," she pointed to Paddy, the lead entomologist, who was sweeping his net across the verge. Laura continued, "We have well over 500 seedlings now, which we're hoping to plant across the fields you just walked across, connecting this small patch of flowers with another patch further down the valley." Solitary bees face challenges in vast farmed landscapes. Unlike honeybees, which can fly up to five miles in search of food, solitary bees travel no more than 200 meters from their nesting sites. It's easy to imagine how an unsuspecting farmer might remove a small patch of scrub, similar to the one we were standing in, and inadvertently eliminate a nearby food source or critical habitat.

Two strategies were employed: the stakeout, where one patiently waits with a camera on a tripod, focused on a patch of flowers, hoping for a bee encounter; and the run-and-gun, where a cameraperson dashes along the verge, capturing opportunistic shots. We started with the stakeout, camera poised, tripod engaged. And we waited. And waited. Then suddenly, Paddy cried out, "Oh, bee!" from the bottom of the field. With a swooping, figure-eight motion, he captured a bee in his net. Emerging from the sea of blue, Paddy inspected his catch, revealing a tiny, translucent tube with a bee inside. The bee, the size of a one-penny coin, was jet black with two bright pink pollen balls on its legs – simply perfect. I was captivated by the discovery of something so new and rare in such a seemingly ordinary place. The hunt for the next bee and the curiosity about what else might be hidden there had me hooked.

We spent the rest of the day searching for bees and butterflies. In total, eight Scabious Mining Bees were spotted. The image of Ollie, our cameraman, and Adam, his assistant, leaning into a hedge, with Ollie holding a camera and Adam pressing a magnifying glass to the end of the lens, will forever be etched in my memory. Wildlife has a way of drawing you in, stripping away distractions, and awakening the inner child. Throughout the day, Paddy reminded us how rare it was to see so many bees. This was the project's second year, with the first batch of new scabious flowers already blooming. Conservation takes time, and conservationists think in years, not days or months. This project had been two years in the making, involving councils, large organizations, farmers, private landowners, experts, volunteers, and staff to keep everything running smoothly. All those efforts culminated in days like today.

After conducting interviews amidst the bees, we began our journey home. Laura informed us about the national B Line project and how the North Cornwall project was just a small part of a much larger initiative. Overall, the aim is to engage 150,000 hectares of land – over 210,000 football pitches – across the UK, an area roughly the same size as London. What's truly astonishing is that they're achieving all of this without owning any land. It's about people coming together, discussing plans, and asking, "Are you in?" We left the day feeling optimistic about the future. We had seen our bee, and now we needed to create a film to share their story.

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