Bee is for beginnings…

It is incredible what you find, when you start to look. There is a certain sloe which grows along the River Witham in Grantham, and for some reason it seems to beat every other blackthorn to bloom. I was walking along in March and saw a bumblebee visiting the flowers. It turned out to be a tree bumblebee – the first species I could name beyond ‘bumble’. Throughout the summer, I have added new bumblebees to my acquaintance as well as many other characters which together make up the family bee. I have very much more to learn and look forward to doing for many years to come, but I was amazed at just how much I have never noticed before. I have gone all these years and yet never seen mining bees visiting the garden, or the nomad bees lurking near their nests. I have never watched mason bees collecting mud or realised that they have their tunnels in the walls of our house. Tiny, beautiful solitary bees and huge queen bumblebees, leafcutters and honey bees and that’s before we even get on to all the pretenders; the hoverflies and beeflies which imitate and exploit! I have illustrated below just a few of those I have been lucky enough to see this year, I hope it might inspire you to explore for yourself.

Bumblebees

Early in the year, the queens emerge from hibernation and feast on the early flowering plants; the heathers and hellebores were a favourite in the garden whilst long-season gorse flowers are an ideal early-spring feed in the wild. These queens will establish nests and then the whole process of ID becomes more complicated as the workers and males appear – similar but subtly different to the queens of the species. There are 24 species in the UK but around six are the most commonly encountered; the Bumblebee Conservation website is a fantastic resource to get you started and with a few key ID tips, you are well on your way with most species!

The first bumblebee I tried to ID - the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)
The first bumblebee I tried to ID – the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum)
A queen garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum)
A queen garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum)

Mining bees

These bees are so named because they dig holes in the ground in which to lay their eggs. There are around 100 species in the UK and they include some exquisitely beautiful specimens such as the tawny mining bee which is a stunning shade of autumnal red. The ashy mining bee and early mining bee also paid a visit to my garden this year. In contrast to the bumblebees, they are largely solitary although some species do nest communally.

A tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva) photographed along the Grantham Canal
A tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva) photographed along the Grantham Canal
An early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) photographed in my garden
An early mining bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) photographed in my garden
An ashy mining bee (Andrena cineria) visiting a hogweed flower along Grantham Canal
An ashy mining bee (Andrena cineria) visiting a hogweed flower along Grantham Canal

Nomad bees

These small bees are not immediately obvious to identify as such on first glance – they are rather more wasp-like than bee-like. There are around 30 different species and they parasitise the nests of other bees – especially mining bees – laying their eggs in the nests which gives rise to the alternative name of ‘cuckoo bee’. There are also cuckoo bumblebees which behave in a similar manner with the nests of bumblebees although I have not (yet) managed to spot one of these.

A nomad bee on gorse flowers at the Hills and Hollows in Grantham
A nomad bee on gorse flowers at the Hills and Hollows in Grantham

Mason bees

There are several species of mason bees in the UK – these are so called because they use mud when constructing their nest. We have red mason bees nesting in holes in the pointing of our house but many different crevices and cavities can be used. The bees lay their eggs inside the tube structures and then seal the end with mud. I came across a ‘mud mine’ down beside the River Witham in Grantham where mason bees were coming and going collecting mud, with up to 10 present at any time. The hollows you can see in the photograph were excavated by these bees which gather up the mud and fly back to their nesting sites with it clutched between their mandibles.

A red mason bee (Osmia rufa) gathering mud from the bank of the River Witham in Grantham
A red mason bee (Osmia rufa) gathering mud from the bank of the River Witham in Grantham

Leafcutter Bees

These bees have a similar ecology to the mason bees, only they use leaves instead of mud as their medium of choice when sealing up their entrances. I spotted this one in our back garden but was lucky enough to watch one ferrying segments of rose leaf from a nearby bush to a bee-hotel in my parents garden. The semi-circular cuts around the edge of the leaf are quite distinctive when you’ve seen them once and a sure sign that these bees are around.

A leafcutter bee resting on a plantpot in my back garden
A leafcutter bee resting on a plantpot in my back garden

Solitary bees

There are a large number of small solitary bees which are often difficult to identify as they are so small and subtly different. This one was identified for me as a male Lasioglossum calceatum, probably the commonest of this particular genus in the UK.

A male Lasioglossum calceatum solitary bee on a burdock flower - distance is relative!
A male Lasioglossum calceatum solitary bee on a burdock flower – distance is relative!

Honey bees

There is only one honey bee species in the UK and it is quite distinct from the rest. Whilst the patterns may vary, the shape and general demeanor make them quite distinctive. Many honey bees belong to hives but wild populations also exist and you can see them from the first spring sunshine through to the last throes of summer.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) leaving a Himalayan balsam flower
Honey bee (Apis mellifera) leaving a Himalayan balsam flower

The active season for many invertebrates, including the bees, is coming to an end. Common carder bumblebees are still around in good numbers but it won’t be long until they too vanish from the flowers. I am already looking forward to next spring when the queens emerge from their hibernation and there will be a new host of commonplace marvels to notice for the first time. The sheer diversity is breathtaking – it only requires you to bend a little closer to the ground to take it in. I would cordially invite you to do so!

Common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) feeding at a fumitory flower
Common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) feeding at a fumitory flower
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