Tag Archives: mining bees

Lockdown Nature Walks

We’ve been in lockdown in the UK for nearly a week.  I was glad when it was announced as it was the first decisive step our government has taken during the coronavirus crisis.  We’re  supposed to stay in our homes except for essential outings (work, food or medical) and one “exercise” walk each day.  Hopefully the lockdown will reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social interaction but it does require people to follow the new rules.

It has been a beautiful week for weather,  mild and spring-like with bright sunshine and blue skies, the sort of weather where the air is filled with birdsong and you can almost hear the buds swelling.  When I have been out on my exercise walks, I have been taking photographs when I see something that catches my eye.  I thought I would post these here, partly for interest as spring arrives in the west country and partly to show how much wildlife there is about us.

P1290182trimmed
This Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) was nectaring on celandine on a grassy bank not far from our house. This individual is mostly paprika coloured with dark spots and paler edges and has recently come out of hibernation. With its scalloped wings and mottled brown underside it resembles a dead leaf providing camouflage during hibernation.

 

P1290188trimmed
The Leechwell Garden, the town centre community garden, is a short walk from our house. I found this plum tree in the Garden, covered in pure white flowers each with a mass of yellow-tipped stamens. The hoverfly is hopefully providing pollination.

 

On Wednesday, when I visited the Leechwell Garden, I was surprised to see many small bees flying close to the surface of a grassy bank bathed in warm sunshine. The picture shows one of the bees, a female yellow-legged mining bee (Andrena flavipes), and I think you can see why she gets her name. They dig holes in the underlying soil for their nests.

 

P1290200trimmed
Behind the Leechwell Garden is the Nursery Car Park, very quiet this week. Along one edge of the Nursery Car Park there is a grassy bank with many celandine and dandelion currently in flower. This small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) was nectaring on celandine. The wings are mainly bright orange with black and yellow spots but along the back edges are patterns of small blue shields. When I was growing up I used to see clouds of these butterflies but that doesnt happen any longer.

 

B.hypnorum
This Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) was feeding from a dandelion in the Nursery Car Park. Tree Bumblebees have the annoying habit of taking over nest boxes intended for small birds

 

The picture at the head of this post is of some Anemone blanda growing among leaf litter in the Leechwell Garden. These blue flowers are native to southeastern Europe but seem to do well here.

 

An amazing natural phenomenon goes unnoticed

Brixham view

After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.

This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view.  The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen  and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay.  It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.

Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.

While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.

I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.

Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.

Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.

When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.

If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions:

https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/a-nesting-aggregation-of-ashy-mining-bees/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/14/mining-bees-create-theatre-enchantments-shropshire

https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/under-the-plum-tree-again/

 

Soil mini-volcanoes
soil volcanoes

 

Female Ashy Mining Bee
Female Ashy Mining Bee showing thick bands of white hair

 

Male Ashy Mining Bee
Male Ashy Mining Bee showing thick tuft of white facial hair

 

Brixham view. 2jpg
The grassy area showing the “searchlight building” and the breakwater and lighthouse

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating
Mating bees with extra hopefuls

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating 3
Mating pair

 

Seal
grey seal

 

bee 2
orange-tailed mining bee on blackthorn

 

 

 

I know a bank where the wild bee goes

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.

car park sign
The soil bank by the car park on a quiet day

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.

Solitary bee on daisy
One of the small bees feeding on a daisy

 

solitary bee March 26
Another of the small bees

 

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.

Solitary bee female April 6
One of the larger bees showing the orange-yellow hairs on its back legs

 

nest area
The nest area with tunnels built in friable soil

 

Solitary bee females April 6 2
Two of the larger bees crawling about

 

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.

solitary bee female with pollen April 12
One of the larger bees with pollen

 

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!

Tightrope walkers and a Geisha Girl in the March garden

“March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb”

Or so the traditional proverb tells us, but that’s not what happened this year, in fact it was almost the reverse. March gambolled in like a young lamb brimming with dry weather and sunshine. As the temperature went up, so people’s spirits rose and you could almost imagine it was spring.

A mid-month sunny Sunday stays in my memory: bright and clear, blue skies, one of the warmest days so far this year and lacking the mistiness of sunny days earlier in the month. From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, I saw several families arriving with blankets and picnic lunches, probably bought at the bustling Food Market held that day in the civic square. Children played in the marrow-chilling water and probably frightened the tadpoles. Fathers exposed too much white flesh.

In a quieter corner of the Garden, I noticed a young woman sitting peacefully with her hands turned upwards enjoying the sunshine. I initially thought she was meditating but when she stood up and performed a series of deliberate, sculpted and fluid movements, I decided it was more likely yoga.
The Garden was doing its job by acting as a pleasant and welcoming community space.

Later in the month, March did leave like a lion but it was a bedraggled, shivering and slouching lion: the weather had turned cooler and wetter with some spirited hail storms.

April 6

Despite the recent mixed weather, change still continues and a green haze of new leaves now covers several of the trees in the Garden.

April 5

I was surprised to see new leaves also appearing on one of the installations in the children’s play area – I hadn’t realised it was a living willow sculpture.

April 7

Elsewhere, a young fruit tree, I think it’s a plum, was, for a while, covered with white blossom, as if there had been a sudden blizzard. The snowy white petals on each flower were arranged in five fold symmetry around delicate yellow-tipped stamens. It’s a beautiful tree but I am concerned for its welfare: Garden visitors are giving it a bit of a battering and I wonder if it needs some sort of protection.

April 4

On the pergola, the climbers have cloaked themselves in green leaves but my attention was taken by the striking flower buds of an early clematis (Francis Rivis). The buds stand out against the green-leaved background as if someone had cried massive purple/blue teardrops which have been caught by the lush new matrix of leaves.

 

April 2

Against one of the old walls I found several flowering quince (Chaenomeles Geisha Girl) with their papery, double, salmon-pink flowers and buttercup-yellow stamens. A bumblebee shared my admiration and fed from the flowers.

Early in the month, Susan Taylor, one of the Garden volunteers came to see me with the exciting news that she had spotted a Hairy Footed Flower Bee in the sunshine on some rosemary growing against one of the old walls. The following day, I also saw one on a patch of lungwort in another part of town near the river. I noticed the staccato flight pattern and the loud buzz. Both bees were gingery coloured males who emerge first after the winter. The black females emerge about a fortnight later to mate with the waiting males before setting up a nest.

In the middle of the month, Susan told me about some different insects she had seen in one of the town centre car parks, not far from the Garden. I went to investigate and found a south facing sunny bank covered with flowering dandelions and celandine and sure enough there was also a host of small insects, between half and two thirds the size of honeybees. They were flying around in a purposeful manner, occasionally landing and occasionally feeding from the dandelion flowers. The underlying soil in the bank was fairly crumbly and I thought I could see some holes so I wondered if these were mining bees but I don’t think I can rule out the possibility that they are hoverflies. Here are some photos; any help in identifying these would be most welcome.

April 8

April 9

I did see two of the insects get together and form what I can only describe as a ball. A third came to join in but was seen off. I assume the two were mating and I wonder if they are solitary bees (Collletes), known for forming a mating ball. When these two had finished, one flew off immediately but the other stayed for a while, shaking legs and wings and putting everything in order, as though it was adjusting clothing rumpled in an embrace.

One sad story. Last month I described some trees covered with catkins growing near the edge of the Garden. The day after I posted the story, one of the local residents cut most of these down. The trunks have been left and I suppose they will grow back but it will take time. I can’t really see why they did this but I suspect it’s to do with wanting order. There is now much less for the birds and insects, nature likes a little untidiness.

I don’t want to end on a low note so I shall tell you about the tightrope walkers. These are two young women who come to the Garden to practise their art and they appeared on a recent sunny day. They have a plastic ribbon which they attach between two sturdy trees. The ribbon is about the width of a human foot and is suspended less than a metre above the ground. They hop deftly on to the ribbon, walk along it, they jump hoping to land on the ribbon again, they use only their outstretched arms to provide balance. At one point, they both got on to the ribbon at the same time but at different ends. They then advanced towards the middle before falling off in fits of laughter.

The photos were taken on March 19th 2014