Spring Bees in the Garden

02nd June 2015

Our recent house move to Staffordshire has certainly been something of an adventure; relocation, building work and leaving behind some of the "certainties" of our previous lifestyle. The house and garden are in a lovely semi-rural spot and the surrounding countryside is beautiful. The garden too, is proving to be something of a hot-spot for one one my main photographic subjects, solitary bee species.

I had been a bit concerned that I wouldn't be able to find local spots where solitary bees were nesting. I needn't have worried. On the 5th April I photographed by first garden Andrena mining-bee; a male Andrena bicolor.

The next day there were lots of males in the garden and a few of these attractive females. Andrena bicolor (also known as Gwynne's Mining-bee) is a smallish bee and the females have very distinctive colouration. It is a double-brooded species, the first brood emerging in early spring and the second during mid-summer.

This is a common bee, but I hadn't had it nesting in the garden at our previous house. This was all very very encouraging!

Where there is mining-bee nesting activity, then it's likely that cleptoparasitic cuckoo-bees will also soon start appearing. This is a female Nomada fabriciana; the brood parasite of Andrena bicolor. Again, not uncommon, but because of the size and the rather un-beelike appearance, often overlooked.

These female bees do not have pollen-collecting hairs; they don't need them. Instead, they enter the nests of their host species (which have already been provisioned with pollen/nectar) and lay their own eggs there. The larvae consume the host-bee larva and the food stores and emerge the following year. We have around thirty species of Nomada bee in the UK.

On April 11th, I photographed my second garden Andrena bee. This is a male Tawny Mining-bee (Andrena fulva). The females with their striking orange/red thoracic and abdominal hairs; with black face, legs and underside, are easily recognisable. The males are less distinctive but when freshly-emerged (like this one), can be recognised by their white face and orangey hairs on the thorax. They also have a prominent "tooth" at the base of the mandibles.

Male bees are generally more difficult to differentiate than females; particularly from photographs. Later, I saw a few female Tawny Mining-bees in the garden, but I don't think they are actually nesting here.

Definitely nesting in the garden is another of our more easily-recognised mining-bees; Andrena haemorrhoa. Again in April, I started seeing the typical little "vulcanos" of soil with a central hole (tumuli) starting to appear in the lawn.

Here's a newly-emerged female by the nest entrance. When in pristine condition, this is another really lovely looking bee. The hairs on the thorax are a mixture of bright orange and creamy white and on the hind legs, pale orange. There's also a prominent tuft of orange hairs at the tip of the abdomen.

It's not only Andrena bees that are nesting in the garden, there's also the halictine bee Halictus rubicundus. This is a female. This group of bees are interesting. It's convenient to be able to split bees into two groups; social and solitary. Social bees (the honeybee and bumblebees) have separate "castes" with a queen and her offspring (workers and males) all existing together in a colony. Solitary bees differ in that a single female produces and provisions a nest and then dies off. Their offspring emerge the following season. Of course, it's not always that simple.

Some of these bees (if I understand it correctly), Halicus rubicundus amongst them, can exhibit both solitary and eusocial behaviour. It depends on the length of the foraging season. In the south of the UK, the bee is generally eusocial and in the north, solitary. Here in Staffordshire it's generally eusocial. Fertilised females emerge in spring. Initially, these "queens", produce some non-reproductive female workers to assist in nest production and later in the season, a new batch of males and reproductive females. Fertilised females overwinter and emerge the following spring.

So, a great start to the season. Lots more species have appeared since; but more of that (including a Staffordshire "first"), in my next blog post!

[Click on any small image for a larger version]

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