Early spring is a good time to look out for some of the different species of bees found locally, catching them before they settle in to producing the next generation. On recent outings Bryn Euryn was particularly well blessed with bumblebees and some other interesting species and the Little Orme brought an unexpected treat so I thought I’d put them all together.
The Buff-tailed bumblebee- Bombus terrestris is the largest of our native bumblebees. Queens, workers and males have a dirty golden yellow collar near the head and one on the abdomen.
The queen’s tail is an off white/buff colour which can sometimes appear orange. The queens are busy establishing new colonies and may be seen collecting pollen to stock it and crawling around on the ground where they nest in burrows underground.
I didn’t spot any workers or males on the days I was out and about, if I had these would both be smaller than the queens and look slightly different as workers have a white tail and that of the males is white ringed with a buff line.
Red-tailed Bumblebee- Bombus lapidarius queens are also establishing new colonies and can be seen feeding and collecting pollen from flowers and also crawling around on the ground as they too nest underground.
Queens are distinctive with their black bodies and red tails and are large, between 20 -22mm long which is a similar length to that of the Buff-tailed bumblebee queens, but the red-tailed is less bulky.
There are Red-tailed bumblebee workers about too. They have the same colouring as the queens but are smaller, varying in size from 1-16mm in length, with some early workers being no bigger than a house fly.
They have comparatively short tongues and favour flowers that provide them with a landing platform such as dandelions and daisies and later on, thistles and ragwort. In gardens they like chive flowers and lavender.
To make things confusing there is a cuckoo-bee that closely resembles the Red-tailed bumblebee. The main differences are that the cuckoo bee has black wings and the back legs are hairy and without the shiny hairless patch, the pollen basket, of the true bee.
There were a very few Common Carder bees Bombus pascuorum about and I only managed one quick shot of one visiting a dog violet flower. There will be many more later on.
An exciting new recording for me here was of the Tree Bumblebee Bombus hypnorum, that’s is not to say they weren’t here before, just that I had never seen one. I was lucky to spot two that were taking nectar from the Green Alkanet flowers which grow in a big patch next to the car-park gate.
Tree bumblebees are fairly new arrivals to the UK, first found in 2001 in Wiltshire. Since then they have spread across most of England and Wales and made it to Southern Scotland in 2013. Queens, workers and males all have a similar colour pattern; the thorax is tawny to reddish-brown, the abdomen is black and the tail is white.
Queens vary significantly in size and can reach up to 18mm in length. Males are quite chunky and can be as much as 16mm in length; fresh males have a patch of yellowish facial hair which eventually wears off. Workers, which is what I believe I photographed range from 11-16mm in length; they move around rapidly and are effective pollinators.
Basking on the leaves of the butterbur plant that also grows near the gate at the bottom end of of the car park was another little bee. I’m not positive about its identification but based on the colour of the hairs on its thorax I think it may be an Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemorrhoa.
A couple of days later I was walking on the Little Orme and came across another species of mining bee that cannot be mistaken for anything else, the Tawny Mining Bee-Andrena fulva.
There were two individuals attempting to nectar on Alexander’s while a particularly strong wind was bending and tossing the flower around. It was tricky trying to get focussed images.
Males are 10 to 12 mm and the females 8 to 10 mm long. The females are covered with fox red hair on their backs and black on the underside, whilst the males are more slender and yellower in appearance.
One of the two managed to hold on and kept searching over the florets, but the other gave up and dropped to the ground.
The bees mate in spring, after which the male dies and the female starts to build a nest. Sometimes more than a hundred females build nests in a few square metres but the Tawny Mining Bee normally does not create a colony: each female has her own nest.
Finally I’d like to mention another little bee found locally, the Red Mason Bee Osmia rufa, also most likely to be spotted around this time of year.
The males are smaller than the females at 6 -11 mm. Both sexes are covered in dense gingery hairs, the male with white tufts on the head while the female’s head is black.
It is a solitary bee, each nest being the work of a single female bee working alone. They nest in pre-existing cavities such as hollow plant stems, old garden canes, air bricks, and even old nail holes in fence posts, lining the inside of the cavity with mud.