Bees are a bit of a hot topic at the moment. We all know how important honey bees are to crop pollination, and that our Bumble Bee populations may be in decline, but I’d like to draw your attention to the unsung heroes of the British Countryside – the solitary bee.
You might have heard of mining bees, or masonry bees, but most people that I meet are amazed to see one – many often say how small they are: “I wouldn’t have even known it was a bee!” is one I hear a lot!
Solitary bees are more numerous and more diverse than honey bees or bumble bees. In fact, the majority of bee species in the world are solitary. This means that they don’t have a queen, and they don’t live in communal nests or hives. Many of them are solitary, yet gregarious, which means they each make their own little nest, but they make them in the same ‘neighbourhood’ as each other.
Its early yet, in the bee season (generally you see the first solitary bees in March, through to September) but I was out on site with my friends Kate (@ALichfeldian) and Alison today looking at our wildflower meadows, and we found a few fab little bees, so I thought I would share them with you.
The Early Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa) has a red thorax (upper body) black abdomen (lower body), orange hairs on her hind legs, and can be identified by the brush of orangey-red hairs on her tail (You’ll think this is awful, but the way to remember is ‘Haemmorhoa sounds like Haemorrhoids, and she has a red bum!). They have a single generation each year, and are around from March – June.
Andrena nitida is a very similar bee – red thorax, black abdomen, but it has dark legs and no red brush of hairs – plus two small white patches of hair on the sides of its shiny abdomen. Andrena nitida is a spring species, on the wing in April and May (sometimes June), and loves buttercups! There is a third bee, Clark’s Mining Bee (Andrena clarkella), which has similar colouring to nitida and haemorrhoa, but has orange hairs on the legs with NONE on the tail; and a fourth – Andrena bicolor, which looks like a small Andrena nitida, but without the white patches and shiny abdomen.
We also found a cuckoo (or Nomad) bee today, from the genus Nomada. These bees are what is called ‘cleptoparasites’, which means, rather than living directly off a host organism like a normal parasitic insect, instead they parasitise a host by stealing (ergo ‘Clepto’) the pollen stores collected by their host species. They don’t actually eat the pollen themselves – they lay their eggs inside the provisioned nests of host bees (Nomada bees usually prey on Andrena nests).
Once the Andrena bee has finished laying her eggs and storing pollen she will move on to the next nest, leaving the nest behind full of pollen and two eggs – one Nomada egg, and her own!
The Nomada larvae hatches out, kills (sometimes eats) the host egg/larva and then proceeds to fatten up on its victim’s food supply! Sneaky? Yes. Tricksy? Definitely. But clever? Efficient? Absolutely.
The interesting thing for people who study bees, is that many of these parasite-host relationships are exclusive, so if you find, for example Nomada flava (as I did today), you know that its host species must be around too, which is, in this case, Andrena carantonica.*
*Remembering all these relationships is hard, but with these I try to remember that Andrena Gin-And-Tonica has good Flava). I have pretty much cornered the market on finding stupid ways to remember insect names!
So, effectively, you get two bees for the price of one!
Taking on the task of learning solitary bees can be a daunting one, as there are about 60 Andrena species, and because they are strongly sexually dimorphic (males and females don’t look alike), you are looking at 120 different bees! And that is only one of many groups of solitary bees. But there are SOME species, like those above, who represent a good place to start. If you want to get out and go bee-spotting, I’d advise keeping your eyes on yellow composites (dandelions and other similar flowers), as these are great places to find solitary bees. A butterfly net and a couple of bug pots are all you need to start!