Sunday, 3 September 2017

Snail shell bees



Another little excerpt from my book......

 
It’s raining. This means my planned excursion to Salisbury Plain to search for the snail shell bee Osmia spinulosa would most likely be quite fruitless, so I’ve decided to stay at home and write about her instead....

I first came across this pretty little solitary bee a few years ago whilst living in West Malvern, Worcestershire. By that time I had begun to take photographs of pretty much anything ant-sized and upwards that visited my tiny patio garden on the side of the hill - and had already uploaded a few thousand images of two, four, six and eight legged creatures to a file on my lap-top titled ‘unidentified garden visitors’. Many of my garden visitors will remain forever unidentified in that file, but when I enlarged the photograph I took of this particular bee, I could tell from her ‘jizz’ (one of my new favourite words) that she must be an Osmia species... and I was quite excited when I realised she wasn’t one I already knew. She was certainly not one of my regular bee hotel nesters. 

As well as being excited by the possibility of a new bee to add to my species list, I was also struck by the fact that my hitherto almost-non-existent ID skills had just notched up a level level; i.e.  I was able to place this bee into a ‘genus’ before going the BWARS (Bees, wasps & ants recording society) site rather than after hours of trawling through it searching for a visual match….. or posting my photograph on twitter to ask for help. I cannot tell you how empowering this felt.

Once I had decided she was an Osmia species, it was relatively easy to pin-point exactly which. Many of our solitary bee species are impossible to tell apart without a microscope, but this one had unusual blue/green/grey eyes so I was able to identify her very quickly.

So, not only was this a new bee (for me) but I had also managed to identify her accurately (and entirely by myself) as Osmia spinulosa - the Spined Mason-bee. On their own, these two happenings were worthy of celebration, but when I started to read and watch videos about her nesting behaviour, I was close to bursting with joy! I’d been watching other Osmia species since early April, as they flew back and forth to my bee hotels, carrying balls of mud or chewed up leaf mastic with their mouthparts - or with the undersides of their abdomens caked in bright yellow/orange pollen - and was already entranced by their nesting behaviour. 

But this bee doesn't lay her eggs in bee hotels, she lays them in old snail shells. A bee who makes her nest in snail shells… how exciting is that? And how in the world had I never come across her before?!

More about these, and other snail shell nesting bees in my book, but for anyone who has come to this blog searching for information about snail shell bees, please see Steven Falk's amazing flickr pages which are full of photographs and information....


Osmia spinulosa (Spined mason bee)

Osmia bicolor (Red tailed mason bee)

Osmia aurulenta (Gold-fringed mason bee)

B x

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Of Snowdrops and Hairy-footed Flower Bees

Male Hairy-footed Flower Bee
It’s February 17th and I’ve just seen my first Hairy-footed flower bee of the year. She’s foraging amongst the snowdrops in the gardens where my husband, Rob, works, and I can barely contain my excitement. I watch her darting from flower to flower, her proboscis extended as she sups the nectar provided by these earliest of blooms. I am enthralled. Her small black furry body emits the high-pitched buzz so typical of this species, that first alerted me to her presence in the flowerbed - and I am smitten, all over again, by this charming little bee.

I can’t believe I don’t have my camera with me! I have never before seen a Hairy-footed flower bee foraging on a snowdrop and would so love to have a photograph to accompany my record when I submit it to BWARS (Bees, Wasps, Ants Recording Society) later today. I wonder if mine will be the first sighting this year, or perhaps even the earliest sighting ever....?

The Hairy-footed flower bee’s scientific name ‘Anthophora plumipes’ (plumipes meaning ‘feather-footed’) sounds, to me, almost as beautiful as her common name, although the ‘plumipes’ part only really applies to the male of the species. The male’s middle legs are elongated and adorned with long feathery hairs, which he uses to transfer secretions from his abdominal glands to the female’s antennae whilst he mates with her. It looks like he’s covering her eyes with his legs whilst he does this.  I have no idea what might be the significance of this transfer of secretions during mating; it is but one of many mysteries I have yet to unravel in my on-going quest to understand more about the fascinating and beguiling world of bees. 

Unusual amongst our British bee species, male and female Hairy-footed Flower bees are quite different to each other in appearance, although both are fairly easy to recognise and identify in their own right, even for complete beginners.  Hairy-footed females are jet black all over, with bright yellow/orange pollen brushes on their hind legs, whilst males of the species are golden-brown in colour (fading to a paler colour as they spend more time in the sun) with pale yellow faces and, of course, very beautiful hairy legs.

Although Hairy-footed flower bees are solitary species, they are often mistakenly identified as bumblebees... and with their rotund body shape and complete covering of hair this is hardly surprising. However when they first emerge in early spring there should be less confusion, for the only bumblebees on the wing at that time of year are the enormous queens who have just emerged from hibernation.  Compared to these huge bumblebee queens, Hairy-footed flower bees are actually quite small. 

Colour, shape and size aside, the easiest way to recognise this bee - and to tell it apart from other bees - is undoubtedly by its behaviour. No other species of bee (apart from other related Flower bee species) behaves, forages or sounds quite like the Hairy-footed flower bee. Zipping back and forth from flower to flower, with such speed and purpose that you can barely keep your eye on them, and then hovering for a few seconds in the air like miniature humming birds as they probe for nectar and pollen with their long pointed proboscises; their behaviour really is most distinctive and almost un bee-like. Add to this their highly pitched ‘buzz’ and the male’s territorial tendencies, and there’s no mistaking a Hairy-footed flower bee when you meet one....



Female Hairy-footed Flower Bee



Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Bees: where to begin?

A few more passages from the opening chapter of the book I'm writing....






Bees. Where to begin….?

Given the enormity of our reliance upon bees as pollinators of human food crops, it beggars belief that we (by we, I mean you and I; not the scientists who study insects) know so little about them. Mention the word bee to most people, and images of bee hives, beekeepers and honey are the most likely things that will spring to their minds. However if I were to give the same people a sheet of paper and some coloured pencils and ask them to draw me a bee, most of them would draw something shaped a little like a rugby ball with striped yellow, white and black bands to which they might attach a head, six legs, two antennae and a pair (or two) of wings; something that looks, essentially, like a bumblebee.

So there is clearly a little confusion as to what, exactly, a bee is.

In actual fact, Planet Earth is home to at least 20,000 different species of bee. This is quite a staggering figure; one which surprises most people when they first hear it, especially if they have previously only been aware of the existence of honeybees and bumblebees.  Of all these different species, only 7 are honeybees, around 250 bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees. (N.B. of the so called 'solitary' bees, some groups actually have social structures. I have not yet fully understood the varying degrees of sociality amongst these groups; it's a complex subject and one I'm still trying to get my head around)


Bees are incredible in so many ways, that I will barely manage to scratch the surface of their existence in this book. My aim is simply to introduce you to certain aspects of their world; a world which, for the last decade or so, has filled me with ever increasing wonder and joy as I have immersed myself in watching, listening and tuning in to the bees (and other wild creatures) that I come across in my garden and on my travels around the UK. By sharing the knowledge I have gained, together with my observations, understandings and realisations, I hope to inspire you, too, to fall in love with these extraordinary little beings… or at least to see them in a different light and want to find out more about them.

Most of us are aware that bees are important pollinators, but far from being in awe of the fact that something so tiny is capable of achieving something so extraordinary i.e. pollination.... we tend instead to take this gift (or service as it is so sadly referred to these days by economists) very much for granted. I use the word ‘gift’ with consideration and awareness of the fact that a gift is usually something that has been given with intent to a recipient. As bees and other pollinators go about their daily business of foraging for pollen, their aim is of course to collect as much as possible to take back to their nest to feed, or provide for, the next generation of their species. Bees are no more setting out to ‘gift’ us their services than they are setting out to ‘pollinate’ the plants they visit, but the result, in my eyes, is one of the most wonderful gifts that nature bestows upon mankind, and one without which we simply would not survive.....


So, ‘Bees pollinate flowering plants’. This we know. But how exactly do they achieve this? How does a bee, newly emerged from its brood cell or cocoon, recognise that plants provide it with food, or which flowers contain the best sources of pollen and nectar? Which bees (or which other species of pollinating animal for that matter) pollinate which plants? How do they know which flowers have already been worked and which still contain rewards? How do they access the more complexly structured flowers? How do they extract pollen and nectar? How does the plant make sure that pollination actually takes place? How do bees carry pollen back to their nests? How do they find the same plant again? How do they communicate (do they communicate?) this information to other bees? How do they use the pollen……? So many hows?!


Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Song of the Stream

Here are a few passages from the book I'm writing. The book is mostly about bees, but this little piece is about birdsong and the sound of water; written whilst I was staying away from home on a bee identification workshop. Work in progress...

Chapter 6: The song of the stream

Sunday 21st May 4.35am

I slept last night in a tiny little thatched cabin at the top of a garden in Ashbury, Oxfordshire. 
The cabin is nestled underneath mature trees in a semi-wild area of the garden and I have just woken to (or been woken by) the local dawn chorus. As I open the door I can also hear the stream below, in what I believe used to be a watercress bed.  It’s earlier than I’d like to be awake, but what a way to start the day.

Unlike the birds, the stream has not been to sleep, and it too has a song to sing. How can I possibly describe the song of the stream? Simultaneously complex yet simple; 'of the moment' whilst also in continuous motion... it brings images to my mind of a never ending carnival procession. Depending on when, where and how you tune in, you either catch the full flow of its journey, or a little snap shot that can only be heard here, now, in this very spot where I am sitting. It is the song of a traveller. Does that make sense? I’m not sure, but know I want to explore this idea further.

I open the door wider. There is a lull in the birdsong now so I am better able to tune in to the stream. There must be some kind of fall because I can hear the sound of water cascading over rocks. It is so very soothing in its constancy; moving, perhaps dancing, with no sense of urgency. ‘Less haste, more speed.’ So reassuring. Almost meditative. I can tune in and out at will.

I wonder, if I were to record the sound for a few minutes now - and then again later - would I be able to tell the difference? Does it sound the same in the middle of the night as it does in the middle of the day? In the middle of winter as the middle of summer? Rainfall and wind speed and direction will surely make a difference; in the same way that an orchestra playing the same tune with fewer (or more) violins - or under different conductors - would sound different. The song of the stream is probably softened at this time of year by the leaves in the trees. I wonder how it would sound in mid-winter when the trees are bare.

I love the sound of living water and wish I could live forevermore in a place where I might go to sleep and wake up to this sound.

I'm listening to the birdsong again now and recognise it from yesterday morning. Same birds, singing in the same trees at the same time. But I don’t know who they are. I sing along with a few of them, trying to memorise the sequences and cadences in the hope I’ll be able to find and identify them on the RSPB website when I get back home this evening. I know what they’re ‘not’, which is at least a start. I can confidently say they are not chiffchaff or willow warbler, nor are they robin, blackbird, goldfinch, greenfinch, song thrush, sparrow or starling. Or cuckoo. My birdsong recognition skills are extremely basic, but I delight in those that I do know. I have a similar feeling, each time I recognise a bird by its song, to the feeling I experience when I overhear someone speaking in a foreign language and realise I understand what they’re saying. It’s the beginning of a connection. 

Of course the birds neither know nor care that I have recognised them, but know it; and somehow, at that moment of knowing, I feel a great sense of belonging. It is this sense of belonging that I long for beyond all other longings, for it brings with it a sense of peace so deep and profound that I find I have no need of, or interest in, the trappings and distractions of everyday life....

Brigit x

P.S. The little cabin I've written about here was in the village of Ashbury in Oxfordshire. I found it on Airbnb and really enjoyed my short stay there. Thank you Joseph!

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/14643975







Wednesday, 24 May 2017

'Help... there's a swarm of bees in my bird box!'

I'm getting LOADS of messages and emails this week from people who have noticed 'Swarms of bees in bird boxes'..... also under the eaves of houses and other unexpected places.

These will be Tree bumblebees Bombus hypnorum.

Please don't call out the pest control people!!! The nest has already been there, possibly unnoticed, for at least a few months. The reason for the sudden increased activity is that this is the time of year bumblebee colonies produces new daughter queens. The local males (who have already left their own nests) become very excited and congregate outside the nests where new queens are about to emerge.... in the hope that they can mate with them.

The males dance frantically around the outside of the nest (which is very often in an old bird box, a hollow tree, or under the eves of a house) giving the appearance of a swarm.

Don't worry; this will not last long. It just means the colony has been successful and is now approaching the end of its life-cycle.

The new queens will soon leave the nest, mate, stock up on pollen and nectar, and go into hibernation till early next spring. The old queen, together with all the remaining workers and the males will not survive for longer than a few more weeks.

Tree  bumblebees are the ultimate opportunists. I have seen the nesting in old canons, tumble dryer outlets and letter boxes. I also watched a nest thrive last year in a muck spreader that a local farmer was still using to spread muck at least 3 times weekly. He got stung a couple of times whilst attaching it to his tractor, but took it on the chin (literally) and generously decided not to evict them

So, enjoy and celebrate the fact that you have provided a home for these bumblebees!
A final word of caution. The female guard bees are on high alert during this period and a little more defensive in their behaviour than usual, so stay away from the nest whilst the males are dancing outside.... and be aware that they seem to become especially defensive, and occasionally aggressive, if you use strimmers or lawnmowers nearby.

And please submit a record of your sighting here...  TREE BUMBLEBEE SIGHTINGS

Loads more excellent info about tree bumblebee nests (and how to move them if you really need to) here... Reigate Beekeepers 





Saturday, 4 March 2017

Some very basic information about bees

Andrena cineraria (Ashy mining bee)
What's the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word 'bee'? For many people this word conjures up images of beehives, honey, and people dressed in strange, white, masked outfits; i.e honeybee related images.

Yet, if I gave the same people a box of coloured pencils and asked them to draw me a bee, most would probably draw something black, yellow and white striped in the shape of a rugby ball, with a pair (or two) of wings, two antennae and six legs; basically something more akin to a bumblebee. So there is clearly a little confusion.

I thought it might help if I wrote down some very basic information to help clear up some of this confusion..........

There are over 20,000 different species of bee in the world.

7 of these are honeybees.
250 are bumblebees
The rest are solitary bees!

In the UK we have around 270 different species:

1 honeybee
24 bumblebees 

245+ solitary bees

NESTING

Honeybees and bumblebees are 'social' bees - which means they live together in colonies comprising a queen, female workers, and males. They communicate and co-operate.
There are tens of thousands of worker bees in a honeybee colony, but only around 50 - 400 in a bumblebee colony.

With social bees (i.e. honeybees and bumblebees) all the 'worker bees' are female. The males are produced at specific times of the life-cycle for the sole purpose of mating.


                                                        
Solitary bees, on the other hand, do not have 'queens' or 'workers', nor (with one or two exceptions) do they share their nests with other solitary bees. This is why they are called 'solitary'. They do, however, often nests alongside each other. When you see lots of solitary bees nesting in the same area you are seeing an 'aggregation' not a 'colony'.

After mating, female solitary bees make their nests. They do this either by excavating tunnels in the ground (ground nesting) or using pre-existing cavities in walls, trees, etc (cavity nesting). Cavity nesting solitary bees are opportunists and will also nest in man-made locations such as hose pipes, wind chimes, key-holes and teapot spouts! Some species specialise in empty snail shells. A few solitary bee species have become adept at burrowing into rotten wood or pithy plant stems.

Whatever the preferred nest site, each female provisions a number of individual cells with sufficient pollen for larvae to feed on when they hatch. She then lays an egg alongside each lump of pollen, seals each cell (and then the nest), and dies before her young complete their life cycles to become adult bees. These new adult bees remain in hibernation in their nests throughout autumn and winter... and emerge the following year in spring or summer to start their life cycle all over again.
                                                            


HONEY

Only honeybees make honey, which they make out of nectar collected from flowers. Honeybees turn the nectar into honey to store over winter, so the colony has something to feed on whilst it's too cold to forage and flowers are scarce.

Other bee species also collect nectar, but do not turn it into honey. They just use it as an energy drink.



OVER WINTERING COLONIES

Unlike honeybee colonies, bumblebee colonies do not overwinter. Each bumblebee colony produces males and new daughter queens in the summer (at different times depending on the species). These new queens mate and then go into hibernation till next spring. The old queen, together with all the female workers and the males, die before winter. That is the end of this nest. So, in a way, you could say honeybee colonies are 'perennials' and bumblebees colonies are 'annuals'.

                                                             

POLLEN COLLECTING

As well as collecting nectar, bees also collect pollen, which they use to feed their young. Different species collect their pollen in different ways.....

Social bees (honeybees and bumblebees) collect it in pollen baskets on their hind legs. They pack the pollen into these baskets very neatly, so don't drop much off on their way home.

Solitary bees, however, collect pollen on stiff branched hairs, either under their abdomen (cavity nesting species) or on their legs (ground nesting species). It is not moistened or packed down, which means lots of this pollen drops off on the other flowers they visit as they make their way home. This makes them extremely good pollinators.

                                                               

STINGS
Only female bees have a sting. Male bees do not. If a honeybee worker stings you, she dies. If bumblebees sting (which they very rarely do) they will not die. This is because the honeybee sting is barbed, whereas the bumblebee sting is more like a needle. Apart from a few exceptions, solitary bee stings are mostly redundant and incapable of even piercing the human skin.

More on stings here -  Which bees sting and which bees don't? 

                                                                

The most important thing of all is that we provide food and habitat for ALL of these species. They all pollinate different plants, in different ways, at different times of the year, and in different habitats. DIVERSITY is the key! It is equally important that we provide for other pollinating insects like butterflies, moths, hoverflies, beetles, wasps and flies.

Photos below are of a honeybee, bumblebee, cavity nesting solitary bee and ground nesting bee.... showing the different ways they collect their pollen.

Apis mellifera (Honeybee)


Bombus terrestris (Buff-tailed bumblebee)


Megachile centuncularis (Patchwork leafcutter bee)


Halictus rubicundus (Orange-legged Furrow-bee)

Saturday, 21 January 2017

If I Could Be A Dream

I wish I could be a 'dream'. If I could, I would visit our misguided leaders, policy makers and those who run the banks and multinational corporations, in their sleep. I would fill their troubled heads with images, sounds and smells of meadows and verges full of wild flowers, butterflies, crickets and bees; sunshine, rain and clouds; breezes and howling winds, muddy puddles, brooks, rivers, and oceans; dandelion clocks and daisy chains; ancient woodlands and wild forests; home made bread, cake and compost; children and people of all races creeds and colours playing together and holding hands; freshly picked runner beans and tomatoes that have been grown outside and pollinated by local native bumblebees; healthy soil; arts and artists; rainbow coloured mosses and pale green lichen; song birds and slow worms; and lots and lots of glow worms; mountain tops and mole hills; Sunday afternoon walks and family get togethers from the days before shops were open every day of the week and Sundays truly were a day of rest; people playing music in local parks without a licence; pine martins, beavers, wolves and otters; open doors; raindrops caught in spiders webs; kindness; full moons and starlit skies; the feel of walking bare foot on wet grass; laughter; abundance for everyone; bridges and open arms; the sound of curlews on the Yorkshire moors; deliciously crisp but misshapen apples; fresh, unpolluted air and fresh, unpolluted (free) water; hedgerows brimming with life; more bees, butterflies, moths and crickets; and with so many more good, healthy, natural, magical, enchanting and beautiful things….. that they would not be able to resist falling head-over-heels in love with this amazing planet we live on. Then, they would wake up (in more than just one sense) and instead of their minds being full of fear, greed, hate and noise.... they would be full of love, peace, joy and stillness. They would abandon their destructive elitist policies, decisions, rules and regulations to reflect their new found 'earth, people and wildlife friendly' views.

This dream would be my gift to ALL those who have lost touch with the natural world. 

Wishing and hoping that peace, love, light and good old fashioned common sense will prevail

xxx