2017 in Bees

If trees are the elders of the countryside, then the bees are part of the summer pageantry of a fairground, here in numbers for just six months of the year they work hard and play hard, getting drunk on nectar whilst setting themselves up for the long winter ahead.

I love to look back on photos from the year and see the changes in light and colour as well as species – hopefully this will come across in the retrospective below:

Honey bee – Apies mellifera

The first bees of the year for me, appeared on valentines day a whole month before I saw the next. These were the honey bees on the gorse flowers, just a stones throw from the edge of the residential in Grantham. I would expect these were from a hive somewhere in a garden nearby. The footpath here winds through the gorse shrubs, creating a sheltered microclimate filled with the coconut-scent of the flowers making an ideal first-forage of the season!

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Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhora (male)

This beautiful little bee is the first mining bee I saw in 2017. This was taken at Farndon Willow Holt – a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve which is best known for its collection of willows but with many other habitats besides. This little male mining bee was on a blackthorn flower against the blue spring sky in March.

Early bumblebee – Bombus pratorum

This is the aptly named ‘early’ bumblebee – visiting winter-flowering honeysuckle in my parents’ garden back in March. Ornamental and garden plants such as this can really extend the range of nectar sources available for early-flying bumbleebee queens in the springtime.

Ashy mining bee – Andrena cineraria

This little bee appeared on the inside of our new greenhouse as we were assembling it over easter. The structure was only half-glazed at this point and upon flying in, it must have flown upwards and become trapped in the glass roof. After a few photos, I sent it on its way! These grey and black mining bees are very striking, and often the first ‘unusual’ bees which people notice in their gardens before discovering the world of different bees which their flowers support.

Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhoa (female)

This was one of the first mining bees I ever took real notice of – it was searching for its hole next to me in the garden and I was struck my the beautiful patterning of the fur. This shot was taken in a spot I came to think of as ‘bee alley’ – just around the corner from work it has a good patch of green alkanet – an early flowering member of the forget-me-not family – and the aspect catches the sun at lunchtime resulting in a new species pretty much every day I visited! Read more about the bees I saw there on this page.

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Bumblebees along The Drift

The Drift is an ancient track which runs along the Lincolnshire/Leicestershire county boundary near us. The limestone grassland is filled with wildflowers but the key species for bumblebees is always the viper’s bugloss – it produces nectar-rich flowers which are accessible to a range of the ‘generalist’ bumblebees and will keep on producing more week after week. If you want to boost the bee-value of your garden – this would be my top tip!

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Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) Mating

The house next door to us had a tree bumblebee nest this year and one day, the garden was filled with the tandem flights of newly emerged queens and sharp-eyed males who had latched on to mate with them. It was amazing to watch the queens successfully take off with such an extra weight on their backs! You can see in this photograph how much smaller the male bumblebees are compared with the queens.

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) Nest

This was a photo of a tree bumblebee arriving into its nest in a fallen willow. The nest was in a failed hazard beam meaning the cavity opened on both sides with the nest situated in the cavity above. By positioning myself on the opposite side, I managed to get this shot of a worker approaching and about to enter the nest.

Tree bumblebee entering its willow-cavity nest

Black Ruderal Bumblebee – Bombus ruderatus

This was another photograph taken along The Drift – this time of a bumblebee which had spent the night on a knapweed flower and had not yet warmed and woken up. This was one of several individuals which were all black – a melanic version of the ruderal bumblebee which is typically banded. This species of bumblebee is thought to be on the increase – possible reasons could include climate change or the increased planting of red clover.

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Leafcutter Bee (Megachile versicolor)

I had made a bee hotel way back in April and this was my favourite resident – a leafcutter bee (probably brown-footed leafcutter) which would spend its days bringing sections of leaf back to seal up egg cells within its nest tubes.

Orange-vented leafcutter bee building its nest with rose leaf segments in our home-made Bee Hotel

Male Bumblebee (species… forgotten!)

This photo was taken after a summer rain shower – this male bumblebee had been caught out on the verbena in the garden and was waiting to dry out. You can see the characteristic ‘yellow moustache’ which typically is found on the males of the commoner species including Bombus lucorum, B. lapidarius, B. pascuorum, B. jonellus and B. praetorum

Carder Bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) on Carline Thistle

I liked the colour scheme of this shot – the carline thistle (in full flower despite the appearances!) and the carder bumblebee share the same straw-coloured brown which seemed characteristic of the countryside in late summer. This photograph was taken at Harbury Spoil Banks – a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserve.

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Solitary Bee on creeping thistle

I’m afraid my ID skills aren’t up to this one, but this is one of the small solitary species resting in August. I like the way the thistle flower looks similar to an anemone, reminding me of the clown fish and sea anemone relationship. This little bee was actually blowing bubbles into the wind when I found it – a behaviour thought to be useful in reducing the water content of the nectar and increasing its concentration.

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Heath bumblebee – Bombus jonellus

This was a male heath bumblebee on the heather at Curbar Edge taken just before sunset. This was one of the last bees I saw in 2017, and the first time I have seen this species which is common in heathland areas but can also be found in parks and gardens near to the habitats. I liked the way this one posed at the top of the strand – actually he was trying to be lazy and reach the next flower without taking to the wing!

Willow flowers (or Vegetable Goslings)

Willows (Salix genus) are one of the earliest flowering tree species in the UK and are a fantastic nectar source for early pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies. These trees are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female trees which can be distinguished by their flowers. Another more commonly known example of a dioecious tree would be the holly – only the female trees bear the red berries. One of the traditional names for willow flowers was ‘vegetable goslings’ which seems a perfect description to me!

Male willow flowers
Male willow flowers – the bright yellow pollen is on the end of the stamens and this brushes onto the pollinators when the come to drink from the nectar.

The flowers are quite unusual when compared with a simple flower such as a buttercup which follows the classic textbook diagram. Willow flowers are catkins – these are spikes of numerous tiny flowers rather than each catkin representing a single flower. Each of the yellow-tipped spikes in the male flower is one of the stamens and there are generally two or more of these to each individual flower within the catkin – the number varies with species. The same is true, although less easily illustrated, for the female flowers which have two or more stigmas per flower.

Female willow flowers
Female willow flowers – these are much less showy and do not have the yellow pollen of the male flowers. They also provide nectar to attract pollinators with the hope that the previous flower visited will be a male willow of the same species and thus the pollen will be transferred and the female flower fertilised.

The male and female flowers appear at the same time in order that the pollen from the male flowers is able to fertilise the female flowers. The flowers are quite different from one another in appearance and, side by side, it would be easy to assume that a male and a female willow tree were two different species.

Development of male willow flowers
Development of male willow flowers. On the left you can see the red outer scale to the bud which breaks and the catkin emerges from beneath. The first flowers on the catkin begin to open – the red tipped stamens can be seen. The yellow pollen then begins to be produced and finally the bumblebee comes to drink from the nectar and incidentally collect the pollen whilst doing so. This is an early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) and the willow species is Salix x laestadiana which is a hybrid of goat willow and downy willow.

The willow flowers are an excellent source of nectar for early pollinating species, such as queen bumblebees which have emerged from hibernation and are establishing nests, or the early Nymphalidae butterflies which hibernate through the winter.

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on female willow flower
Small tortoiseshell (Aglaise urticae) butterfly on female willow flower. Note the presence of the nectar source in the centre of the catkin whilst the yellow-tipped stigma is higher. The stigma is where the pollen must reach in order to fertilise the female flower and this design encourages successful pollination which is an incidental rather than intentional act on the part of the pollinator which is only interested in a free feed!
Unidentified solitary wasp on female willow flower
Unidentified solitary wasp on female willow flower – any ID tips would be most welcome! This demonstrates the effectiveness of the design of the female flower – see how the wasp must bend low into the flower to reach the nectar source, so bringing its body (which will hopefully be dusted with pollen from a male flower) into contact with the female stigma.