The bees in February

The bees in February

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This winter has been mild with just one spell of exceptionally cold weather.  The overnight temperatures dropped to sub-zero even down to minus eight degrees centigrade, but that all finished a week ago only to be replaced by exceptionally warm, sunny weather with highs of plus eighteen and mild overnight temperatures!

The quick seesaw of temperatures has not disturbed our honey bees who are as active as ever gathering pollen and nectar.  I like to try and guess where the pollen comes from by its colour.  The above photograph does not show a darker more red pollen that is somewhat rarer.

honey-bee-on-tinus

The pale cream pollen might come from the Viburnum tinus as there is a large bush not far from the hives that is in flower now.

hellebore-bee-pollen-1

However, judging on noise level the Hellebores in the garden are preferred over the V. tinus and the pale pollen could be theirs.

bee-on-honeysuckle

I’ve no doubt that the majority of the pale yellow comes from the winter flowering honeysuckle.  I now have three bushes in the garden and the largest is very close to the hives.

The darker red yellow I would guess comes from the abundant gorse around the garden and some dark yellow from the Lamium.

honey-bee-veronica

The small flowers of Veronica (I think persica) have opened all over the garden and surrounding fields in the past few days.  Some fields are covered by a blue haze of these flowers.  Although tiny, they provide both nectar and white pollen to honey bees from what I have observed.

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It is not only the honey bees that are attracted to the Veronica.

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I did not expect to see any solitary bees (with the exception of bumble bees) in the middle of February but this one is getting off to an early start.

pollinator-on-veronica

The appearance of the Syrphid flies is not so unexpected as there are plenty of Lesser Cellandine (Ficaria verna) around but I rarely see bees on the Cellandine.

mossy-stone

We try to provide different sources of water for the bees.  This mossy stone is a favourite place for them.

bee-on-moss

Once the sun hits the stone warming up the damp moss there will be five or six bees sunning themselves and taking water.

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What surprises me more is the number of bees on the ground taking water off leaves.  They are particularly partial to these leaves.  Perhaps the humidity pools in convenient sized droplets or perhaps they are taking in more than just water from the surface of the leaves.

bombus-pratoris

Yesterday I saw Bombus pratorum queens for the first time.  There were three or four in the large winter honeysuckle bush.  They move much more rapidly than the ponderous Bombus terrestris queens that fly all the winter in the good days.  All were stocking up on nectar but I have not seen any of the bumble bees gathering pollen yet.

carpenter-honeysuckle

The carpenters (Xylocopa violacea) have returned in earnest this past week and join the melee in the honeysuckle.  In the melee I am sure I saw an Osmia cornuta.  The red body is difficult to miss but it was soon gone and I was unable to take a photograph.

bombus-lapidarus

Stop Press!  I have just seen a Bombus lapidarius today but she seemed badly infected by mites.

bombus-lapidarus-mites

Close up the mites resemble ticks.  They have taken hold in the softer, less protected folds of her body and do not look at all comfortable.  Some of the mites which infect solitary bees live on the cell debris of the nest and have little effect on the life of the bees but I am not so sure about these ones.

bee-on-heather

The bee season is off to an early start in the garden.

 

 

How variable is variable?

How variable is variable?

bombus-brown-band

It all started when I saw this bumble bee on my winter flowering honeysuckle on 12 December 2016.  Usually I see only the B. terrestris (queens and workers) and the honey bees just now.  I recognised it as a bumble bee that I see frequently around here in the spring and I thought I would have another go at identifying it.

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This is me in April 2013 trying to get close up, to see if I could learn a bit more about bumble bees.  This is what I thought must be pascorum, the commonest carder.

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Going back to April 2011, my stripey common carder bee.

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This is 6 March 2014 and these fluffy carders are a favourite – common or not.

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In addition to these completely fluffy, stripey ones, I also see ones with this dark brown band around the top of their abdomen.  It must be a brown-banded bumble bee, I thought in my naivety.  However, these bees do not check out to Stephen Falk’s description in the “Field Guide to the bees of Great Britain and Ireland”.  It was at this point I gave up going further with bumble bees.

I have now compared Bombus humilis in Atlas Hymenoptera Les bourdons de la Belgique and although B. humilis has now all but vanished in Belgium, one of the three types of examples (yes, three) looks very much like my brown banded bee.

I must admit that the three types of B.humilis in the Atlas Hymenoptera do not look like the same bee to me which leads me again into despair of the variations of colourings in bumble bees.

So what should my conclusion be?  Return to my “give up” position for identification?  Yet, The Bumblebee Conservation Trust  in the U.K. encourages amateurs to get involved.

I do not want to identify bees like a train spotter to increase my list but I think it is very unlikely that anyone else has ever tried to identify a bee in this area.  I would have liked to make an attempt, however crude, to quantify the diversity around me but perhaps this is not possible and samplings must be left to the experts.

 

A very early bee

A very early bee

Andrena 26.1.2016

We were out walking on Tuesday 26 January 2016, it was nearly five o’clock in the afternoon and I had not bothered to take my camera along.  Nevertheless, I can’t help keeping my eyes on dandelions, checking for bumble bees, but instead I spotted a solitary bee: an Andrena on a dandelion.  My husband came to my rescue and took a photograph for me.

I think it is an Andrena haemorrhoa – its common name being the Early Mining Bee but by early in the U.K. they mean you can see it usually starting in March.  I felt rather sorry for it as it was not moving but sheltering in the dandelion for warmth.

The exceptionally mild weather with temperatures peaking up to seventeen degrees centigrade with sunshine has obviously woken some wild bees from their winter dormancy.  Luckily the flowers are being fooled too but I hope she has enough strength to make it back to her tunnel.

In praise of Hebe

In praise of Hebe

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I bought my white Hebe for 10 euros 25 in March 2014 to provide ground cover for a difficult dry, sunny patch in my front garden.

Honey bee

It has been money well spent as it flowered in the first year and is flowering again just now.

Fast bee

The honey bees make straight for it.  It is called véronique arbustive in French which sounds a much more charming name for such a beautiful plant.  It belongs to the Scrophulariaceae family of plants which contains many plants that the bees and other insects love for their high nectar content.

Bigger black bee

But it is not only the honey bees that are attracted to it.

Tiny black bee 2

There are lots of wild solitary bees that love it too.  Compare the sizes of the bees in the last two photographs with the size of the flowers.

Tiny black bee

These little black bees are so tiny that I’m sure some people must mistake them for flies.

Bee fly

It does attract the bee flies too.  This one is a particularly good bumble bee mimic and even buzzes like a bee.  They are, however, parasitic on solitary bees.  Their eggs need to hatch in the nest of a bee or other insect so that the larvae can feed on the larval stages of the host insect.

Shiny Halictes

This bee is particularly attractive as it is a shiny gold colour.  The little slit at the rear of the abdomen shows that it is in the family of Halictidae but I can’t go closer than that.

Peacock butterfly

Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

The butterflies come for the nectar, too.

Lycaena top

This one is a copper.

Lycaena underside

Perhaps the Sooty Copper (Lycaena tityrus).

Yellow pollen

The honey bees don’t seem to bother with collecting the pollen from the flowers although I think the little bees are more patient and collect a cream pollen but the bee above has been visiting somewhere else to have collected all that yellow pollen.

Bumble on Dahlia

Strangely, I see very few bumble bees on the Hebe.  They much prefer the Dahlias that are growing all around it.

So, if you are looking for a plant that doesn’t cost a lot, provides lots of entertainment by attracting bees and butterflies and is easy to care for – I think Hebe ticks all the boxes.

 

Anthidium manicatum carding wool

Anthidium manicatum carding wool

Stachys

I have some Stachys towards the bottom of the garden.

Not many people can resist stroking the soft furry leaves of Stachys.

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But if you see patches on the stem or leaves that are lacking the hairs, it could be that you have an interesting bee in the neighbourhood.

Anthinium manicatum on stem

Yesterday in the garden I noticed this Anthidium manicatum, or wool carder bee making repeated visits to my Stachys.  She must have razor sharp mandibles as the stem is shaved in a firm downward movement.

Anthidium manicatum no hands

She has now collected her bale and is about to fly back to her nest.  I watched her arrive and it took less than a minute for her to roll up a ball of the soft fibres.  I don’t know where she has her nest but last Setember one nested in one of my bee houses and I described it in my other blog A French Garden.  Check out Mason bee hotels or houses to see where she nested.

Anthophora furcata

It was not only the Anthidium that was interested in the Stachys.

Anthophora furcata on Stachys

As I waited for the Anthidium to return, I noticed an Anthophora furcata.

Anthophora furcata on Stachys

Stachys looks and incredibly soft and welcoming plant for bees.

Carpenter

I shouldn’t forget the Carpenter who passed by too but she gets everywhere!

Andrena agilissima colony

Andrena agilissima colony

Last May I saw Andrena agillisima for the first time (See my blog Andrena agillisima).  Now I have discovered a nesting place at the bottom of my garden.

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Some years ago a large Poplar tree fell down in a storm.  The tree was cut up and used for the fire in due course but the root was left as it had fallen in a part of the garden that was very overgrown at that time.  It has formed a very large well-drained mound and this year I spotted the holes and the Andrena agilissima.

However, despite seeing them flying too and fro, I have not been able to get a photograph very easily, as they do not hang about. However, my patience has been rewarded.

1.Andrena agilissima at entrance

I at last managed to get a shot of the black and white head surveying the world from the security of her burrow.

2.Antenna appears

Then I noticed another antenna appear.

3.Second antenna

Then a pair of antennas appeared.

5.Squeeze out

The second bee pushed herself under the first in her wish to exit the common hole.

6.Wings spread

I had not realised that the Andrena agillissima would share the entrance holes to the colony but inside she will build her own capsule for her egg to pass through the larval stages and overwinter as an adult.

The first bee only hesitated a few seconds before joining the second to search for flowers.  She shouldn’t have had far to go if she wanted to try my sprout plants which are flowering specially for her.  You can see her take flight in the slideshow below.

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