The signs have been there for a while. Birds singing as though someone told them it’s time to turn up the volume. Grassy banks dotted with starry yellow celandine flowers. A green haze of fresh leaves slowly creeping over previously bare branches. If only the weather would play fair it might be spring.
So, after many days of damp and grey, the sun shone, the air was warm and it was as though a transformation had taken place. It was also Friday Market Day and, as people wandered between the stalls, they smiled at one another and remarked on the weather. Two busking fiddlers played pleasing harmonies in the Market Square and, outside the Italian Café, it was not quite Tuscan weather but the beautiful people laughed and smiled in the Devon sunshine.
I wandered down to the Leechwell Garden where, soon after I arrived, my attention was grabbed by a low but insistent buzzing. On an extensive stand of rosemary growing against one of the old brick walls I saw a real sign of spring. It was a chunky bee covered in rich brown hairs but with a pale nose. Moving quickly and purposefully among the slate-blue flowers, it collected nectar, buzzing as it went. This was a male Hairy Footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes), my first one of the year and seeing it lifted my spirits.
Elsewhere in town, I looked at a huge willow (Salix caprea) that has been cleverly pollarded and trained over a wall where its many slender stems drop like water over a precipice. The tree has been covered in immature, grey “pussy willow” catkins and, recently, these have been mutating into bright pollen-loaded male catkins. Last Friday in the sunshine the tree was very impressive: a mass of yellow flower heads, unruly brushes made from the long stamens, alive with honeybees and a few bumble bees and small flies. The whole tree buzzed as the sun’s energy was transformed into sound.
When the bumblebees saw me, they flew off in disgust. The honeybees, however, were drunk on pollen and nectar and either didn’t see me or didn’t care. Many of them already carried large chunks of orange-yellow pollen to take back to the hive but when they encountered a new flower head they wallowed in it, they almost swam in the stamens. If they could have expressed pleasure this would have been the occasion.
Later, a light mist crept over the hills to the east, gradually enveloping the town and shutting out the sun.
The young woman sitting in her car rolled the window down and enquired: “Would you mind telling me what you are doing?” I was in one of the town centre car parks adjacent to the Leechwell Garden and had been peering at a bank covered with scrappy grass and flowers, occasionally taking photographs. She continued hesitantly, asking if perhaps I was interested in the wild flowers. She was right, of course, but that was only part of the story.
The car park is called the Nursery, its incongruous name purloining a bit of local history. Difficult as it is to believe, until the early 1980s this part of central Totnes housed several fine commercial market gardens. All kinds of vegetables were produced in season and sold through shops in the town. The land that now forms the Nursery car park used to be covered with greenhouses growing tomatoes, lettuces and out of season chrysanthemums.
I find it sad that these very productive market gardens were tarmacked over to provide car parking but that is what happened. Narrow banks of soil were left around the parking area, perhaps to leaven the bleakness. Some of these banks are now covered with brambles, others with grass. The bank I have been watching is about ten feet wide and south facing. It is mostly covered with grass although there are a few exposed areas of friable soil; at this time of year there is a good population of flowering dandelions and celandines. Behind the bank is a high wall clad in ivy and on sunny days, the area gets quite warm attracting many insects.
Last year, my friend Susan Taylor told me about some solitary mining bees living in this bank. I had a look, but didn’t study them properly, mostly owing to my ignorance. This year I decided to try to identify the inhabitants and occasionally popped in to the car park to see if anything was happening. It wasn’t until the third week of March that I was rewarded with my first sighting of the solitary bees. On a warm, sunny day I found a cloud of small, slender bees, each about two thirds the size of a honeybee. They were flying about in an excited, staccato manner about twelve inches above the ground repeatedly changing direction, occasionally bumping in to one another, occasionally stopping to feed from dandelions. Susan Taylor describes this behaviour as their “Sun Dance” and they do seem to fly only when it is warm and sunny. From my photographs, I could see their black abdomen with prominent white stripes and their thorax and face decorated with pale brown hairs.
The “Sun Dance” continued on warm days and then about two weeks after I first saw the small bees I came across an area of friable soil in the bank with some prominent holes which I assume are the nests. Here I saw a few larger bees that were otherwise quite similar in appearance to the “Sun Dancers”. There was one clear difference apart from size and that was the orange-yellow hair on their upper back legs. They were also behaving quite differently, crawling around near the holes but rarely entering. I didn’t see any evidence of mating but a few days later I began to see some of these larger bees returning to the holes loaded with chrome-yellow pollen and quickly disappearing inside to equip their nests. On good days, the smaller bees were still evident but in gradually decreasing numbers. The larger bees have continued to collect pollen; the dandelions are declining but many local fruit trees are now blossom-covered so there is no shortage.
So, what have I been seeing? I have compared photographs of my car park-bees with pictures in bee books and with the many photographs of solitary bees on the internet. It is very difficult to make a firm identification, but I will offer a suggestion. The smaller bees are likely to be males and the larger bees the females of the same species. What we have called the “Sun Dance” is a crowd of males waiting for the females and getting over-excited, rather like sulky adolescent boys. I did not witness mating but collection of pollen and nest building are performed only by mated females. Their early emergence, their nest location, the complete white bands and the orange-yellow leg-hairs on females but not males suggest Andrena flavipes, the Yellow-legged Mining Bee. These are common mining bees that build nests in tunnels in soil banks. They are found in the southern UK and may have a second brood in mid-summer; I shall have to keep watch.
It would be interesting to hear what others think about this tentative identification.
But why am I interested in these bees if they are not rare? Why am I taking the trouble to watch them and take photographs?
I believe it is important to document these creatures, to get to know their life cycles and spread the word. Their emergence and nest-building each spring is one of nature’s amazing phenomena and I feel privileged to watch. These bees are also important pollinators; it’s good to know they are around and we should aim to support them.
I find it fascinating that these small lives are being lived in a busy town centre car park, literally under our noses. Perhaps realising that there is life in the soil banks makes up in part for the loss of the market gardens?
I explained some of this to the young woman in the car and she seemed interested, if a little bemused. It’s not every day you stop in a car park and get an enthusiastic lecture on solitary bees!