Garden Bee Update

29th June 2016

Well once again, I've missed my own self-imposed deadline to update this Blog more regularly! Because of this, I've also decided not to do another post about springtails. The "bee season" is well underway now, so I'll start updating readers with what's been happening in our Staffordshire garden. I've also uploaded a number of new images from March, April and May to the Image Gallery and finally got around to adding some new shots to the Home page slideshow.

As a bit of a bee fanatic, seeing my first solitary bee of the year is always a bit special. The shot below is in our Staffordshire garden (where I do the majority of my wildlife photography) and was taken on 13th March. It's just a quick "grab" shot, but by the size, appearance, colouration (with black facial hairs) and time of year, this has got to be a male Andrena bicolor; Gwynne's Mining Bee. This is a common and widespread mining-bee and one of the first species to appear in spring. It is rather small though and can be easily overlooked.

The female is a rather attractive little bee, overall black but with gingery/brown hairs on the thorax, on the hind legs (for collecting pollen) and on the thin abdominal hair bands. Females appear later than the males and this individual was photographed on 30th March. Just a note about these "white background" shots. I like to get this type of shot if I can and I often get asked what procedure I use. Well, it's quite straightforward. If insects are not too "flighty", I just catch them in a plastic pot. I don't have nets etc (I'm not an entomologist) and most of the time my attempted captures are unsuccessful. When I do manage it though, I just put the pot in the shade for a short while. I have a white board and some white foam-card that form a "mini-studio". I transfer the insect to the white board with a watercolour brush. Typically, there's around 10 seconds before the insect becomes too active to photograph so I have the camera set-up ready for the shot. This process works around 50% of the time. The insect is then returned to the garden unharmed.

I'm quite happy doing this because it's what happens naturally anyway. When the sun goes in, insect activity decreases because they are not warm enough to fly (generally). I just reproduce these conditions to temporarily slow them down.

This next bee is much larger; the Buffish Mining Bee (Andrena nigroaenea). The females are roughly honeybee-sized, the males a little smaller and slimmer. We're fortunate in having a small aggregation of nest holes (several dozen), in the sloping sandy soil of our front garden. I photographed the first male on 30th March this year. Within a week, there were lots active, with many swarming around a couple of conifers that we have in the garden. It's quite common to see this "lekking" behaviour with some solitary bees. It's not fully-understood (as I understand it), but assumed to be related to courtship and mate selection.

The first female Buffish Mining Bees (see image below), started appearing about a week after the males. Note the thick pile of gingery/brown hairs and the brownish abdomen with a much darker tip. I've shown this bee sitting on my finger. I like to remind readers that the majority of solitary bee species (particularly the Andrena mining-bees), are safe to handle. The females are capable of stinging, but tend not to. Generally when they do, the sting is not too severe. There are some exceptions of course and remember that with honeybees and bumblebees, stings are definitely more unpleasant! Male bees (of any type), have no mechanism for stinging. This is useful to know in the situations where you can tell them apart!

No Blog post about bees would be complete without some mention of cuckoo bees. Over a quarter of our 270+ species in the UK bees are cleptoparasites; they exploit the nests of other bees. They are often termed "cuckoo" bees. Female cuckoo bees enter the nests of their host bees and lay there own eggs there. When the cuckoo bee larva emerges, it eats the food stores provided by the host bee and generally, the host egg or larva too.

The cuckoo bee associated with the nests of Buffish Mining Bees is Gooden's Nomad Bee (Nomada goodeniana). Somewhat wasp-like in appearance, these yellow and black bees have been particularly numerous in the garden this year. These are one of the larger Nomada bees. The male is pictured below. He is smaller than the female and has more yellow of the face.

The female (image below) is up to 10mm in length. The antennae are completely orange. Like all cuckoo-bees, she had no apparatus for collection pollen; she doesn't need to. All the pollen collecting is left to the female of the host bee! This female had just emerged from a nest hole and had conveniently climbed up a nearby bluebell stem to warm up.

My usual "health warning" here. Most bee species (as with many invertebrates), cannot be identified with confidence from photographs. With experience, there can be higher levels of confidence with some species. Also, males can look quite different from females. It's always been particularly difficult with bees because there hadn't been a concise field-guide to British bees since the 1890s! This has now changed with the publication of Steven Falk's excellent Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland (2015). With Steven's excellent descriptions and keys and Richard Lewington's stunning illustrations, this is the perfect companion to those with an interest in our many and varied bee fauna. I strongly recommend it!

[For more regular updates, you can view my Photostream on Flickr. I post images there several times a week.]

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