Monday, 29 April 2013

What pollinators can you see in your garden at the moment?

Finally spring has arrived with sunshine and warm temperatures. Plants are starting to flower everywhere and pollinators are out and about busily collecting pollen and nectar, searching for mates and looking for suitable nesting sites.
To give you a little help with identifying some of the more common pollinators out and about at the moment I have compiled a list of what pollinators I have seen so far.

Bumblebees: There are quite a lot of different bumblebees flying around now. Most bumblebees you see at the moment will be queens and they are busy searching for nesting sites now, flying up and down over rough grass, along hedgerows, sheds and woodland edges. Buff-tailed bumblebee queens (Bombus terrestris) are the most common bumblebees I am seeing at the moment. They are quite large and are often flying low above the ground with a distinctive buzzing sound. The queens of Bombus terrestris have a buff-coloured tail which distinguishes them from the White-tailed bumblebee queens (Bombus lucorum) which are normally smaller and have a white tail.

A Buff-tailed bumblebee queen (Bombus terrestris)

Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is also out now. They have reddish-brown hair with some black hairs at the abdomen.

Another bumblebee you can see is the Tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) with a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail. See here for more information about this species.

You can also see Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius), which are mostly black with a red tail.

Red-tailed bumblebee queen visiting Gooseberry flowers

You may also spot the Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), a relatively small bumblebee which produces workers quite early in the season. It has a black body with a yellow band on the thorax, a yellow band on the abdomen and an orange tail.

Also have a look at our blog post about identifying common bumblebee queens.

Solitary bees: Spring is a prime time for solitary bees as many species emerge early in the year, some as early as late February. There are more than 200 species of solitary bees in Britain but here are some of the more common species which are easy to identify.

Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes), probably one of the fastest bees in the UK, are often seen hovering around Pulmonaria flowers and other blue or yellow spring flowers. The males are ginger and the females black. Look here for more information. 

Hairy-footed flower bee female
Hairy-footed flower bee male

Mason bees, especially Red mason bee (Osmia bicornis), are starting to emerge now and you will probably only see the males at the moment as the females emerge later. The bees are the size of a honey bee and have a reddish abdomen. Males have white hairs covering the face. Females are larger than the males and have a black face.
A Red mason bee male visiting grape hyacinth flowers
A Red mason bee female at her nest entrance

You can also find several mining bee species (Andrena spp.) now. One of the prettiest mining bees is the Tawny-mining bee (Andrena fulva). See here for more information.

A Tawny-mining bee female on a daisy flower
Other mining bees you can see are for example Andrena nitida, Andrena bicolor and Andrena minutula.

Andrena nitida likes dandelion flowers
Andrena minutula on a daisy flower
Another Andrena, probably Andrena bicolour
Another little mining bee (Andrena sp.)

Butterflies: So far I have seen quite a lot of Brimstone butterflies this year. There are also Small tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies flying around and Small whites, probably looking for cabbage plants. I have also seen some Comma`s basking in the sunshine. Also have a look at our blog post about early spring butterflies.

A peacock drinking nectar from violet flowers
A Comma butterfly
Small Tortoiseshell on Grape hyacinth flowers

Flies: There is one fly out and about at the moment which pretends to be a bee. It is the Bee fly (Bombylius sp.) which looks like a fluffy brown ball hovering around flowers. Look here for more information about this interesting pollinator.

A Large bee fly (Bombylius major)
Bee flies are fond of Primrose flowers

I have also seen some hoverflies but they are mostly species which are small and unimpressive and can easily be overlooked. One more disitinctive hoverfly out now is the Marmalad hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus), a small hoverfly with a black and yellow body. The bigger hoverflies you can see now are mostly the bee-mimic hoverflies (Eristalis tenax and E. pertinax) and they like to visit dandelion flowers but can also be found on other spring flowers such as Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna). The main season for hoverflies is summer and late summer when you can often find them in great numbers.

A bee-mimic hoverfly (Eristalis tenax) in a tulip flower
Marmalade hoverfly in a Lesser celandine flower

Most early pollinators like to fly on warm and sunny days and will often be abundant in places with lots of early spring flowers. So next time you are out and about have a closer look and you will be amazed at how many different pollinators you can spot.

Friday, 26 April 2013

The Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes): a love affair with Pulmonaria

Hairy-footed flower bees like Pulmonaria flowers
If you live in the South of the UK and have a patch of Pulmonaria (lungwort) flowering in your garden at the moment it is well worth to look out for the Hairy-footed flower bee (Anthophora plumipes) as the bees find Pulmonaria flowers irresistible.

 Hairy-footed flower bees are the size of a small bumblebee and both sexes look quite different from each other. The males, which normally emerge earlier than the females in late February or early March, have gingery hair with a darker tail and hairy feet whereas the females are black with yellowish hair on the hind legs. 

The bees are incredible fast flyers (they are the fastest bees we have seen so far) and especially the males are often just dashing around and you may only see something brown whizzing past you. The females are easier to see as they often spend some time collecting pollen and nectar from Pulmonaria flowers. They will also visit other flowers such as Flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) or Comfrey (Symphytum sp.). Hairy-footed flower bees are often seen hovering in front of flowers; they sometimes even hover in the air in front of you to look what you are up to. You can see the bees flying around from late February (if it is warm enough) until mid June.

The males have gingery hair and hairy feet

The Hairy-footed flower bee female will build nests in soft mortar in walls or more rarely in the ground and can sometimes form big aggregations in favoured locations with a good supply of flowering spring plants, especially Pulmonaria.

Female bees are black with brown hairs on the hind legs

The bees are quite widespread in the South and some central areas of the UK and can be found in parks, gardens, on road verges and in other habitats with a good supply of spring flowers. 

Even the male bees have to stop dashing around sometimes

If you find Hairy-footed flower bees in your garden or local park you can submit your sighting to BWARS:

A Hairy-footed flower bee male in a crocus flower
A female bee visiting some violet flowers
This female bee is attracted to comfrey flowers
Flowering currants are good plants for pollinators in spring

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Range expansion of the tree bumblebee

By Liz Elliott

My PhD focussed on modelling the range expansion of species and I often used butterflies as examples of species expanding their range in Britain but I didn’t know much about other pollinators and so I thought it would be great to do a bit more research into this.  The first species that sprung to mind to find a bit more about was the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum).  Until 2001 this bee was not present in the UK, which was surprising as it is widespread on mainland Europe.  The first sighting was made in the New Forest and since then this bee has rapidly spread around the country with sightings from Northumberland to Wales and Cornwall.  Have you seen a tree bumblebee near you?  If so help BWARS to map its spread by visiting:

The tree bee is easy to identify as it looks very different to other bumblebees with its ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, and (helpfully for ID!) the queens, males and workers all have the same colouring although vary in size.  The queens of this bee emerge from hibernation in February or early March and workers are active throughout spring.  Males are produced in late May and June and a partial second brood may be active in the summer. It is possible for sightings of late flying queens to be made into November and December, so you may spot this bee out and about nearly all year round!

Identifying features of the tree bumblebee
This bumblebee is found in a wide range of habitats, including woodlands, gardens and parks.  Unlike other bees in the UK, which nest at ground level, this species nests above ground in cavities, such as holes in trees and roof spaces, and indeed last year at Leeds University a nest was observed in a gap in one the buildings in the Biology department!  The tree bumblebee is also often found nesting in bird boxes, so even if you don’t have birds nesting in your garden, a bird box could be a really important nest site for these bees instead.

Nesting in a bird box in an allotment in Leeds - can you spot the bee zooming in on the entrance?!
The nest in the Biology department at Leeds University - a little blurry but you can just make out a few in the gap in the wall.

A nest in a garage roof.
The males of this bee do a dance outside nesting sites, waiting to mate with the new emerging queens.  Last year the Leeds team were lucky to observe this behaviour outside the nest in the garage roof.

Males dancing outside the nest.
Bees are really good to encourage into your garden and the tree bumblebee in particular is an important wild pollinator of fruit trees and is often found visiting their flowers and those of other plants that produce fruit such as bramble and raspberry.  While out and about in Leeds we have often seen them on flowering currant, so if you have one of these in your garden have a look and see if you can spot a tree bumblebee on it – I had a look at the one in my garden and was delighted to find there were some on mine!

Tree bee feeding on a flowering currant (Ribes sangiuneum)
This bee is expanding its range when other bees are declining because it is often associated with open clearings in woodlands but also because urban gardens are a good source of readily available foraging and nesting resources.  It also has relatively high dispersal ability and so is able to fly between patches of suitable habitat.  This high dispersal ability may be how it colonised the UK, flying across the English Channel, potentially with the aid of strong winds.    As this bee has different nesting sites to other bumblebees in the UK it is not competing for resources and so is unlikely to impact negatively on other species.  The rapid expansion of this species may mean that it will soon be found across the whole of Great Britain, so watch this space!

We rescued this rather drowsy tree bee from somebody's drive earlier this week!