The Early Mining Bee is the first solitary bee I ever took note of. I spotted one pottering around on the garden table a couple of years ago and didn’t know what this charming little creature could be. Luckily it happened to be one of the most easily identifiable mining bees – subsequent efforts at identification have been a rather more mixed success but I do have a soft spot for this one.
The Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemorrhoa in the latin – is one of the larger mining bees and nests solitarily, although there may be loose aggregations of nesting females where the habitat is suitable.
I spotted this one searching for its nesting hole in our back garden before disappearing down the tiny, perfectly round hole. A few moments later, when my elbows and knees were already getting sore, it popped back out. It pauses a moment, has a preen, seems slightly startled by a Chocolate Mining Bee (Andrena scotica) which was buzzing around above it, and then hops out and flies back away. I often see these holes, and it was a real treat to actually watch the bee emerge.
The Early Mining Bee is common across the UK, and are fairly generalist in terms of the flower species they visit which makes them well suited to our gardens where they are regularly seen foraging and nesting.
You can read more about mining bees, and what takes place below the ground, in Brigit Strawbridge’s excellent blog post on the subject here.
One of the earliest bees to appear in the garden is Anthophora plumipes – also known as the feather-footed or hairy-footed flower bee. These are almost bumblebee-sized solitary bees which buzz at high speed from flower to flower. The lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) in the garden seems a particular favourite!
The males and females are easily told apart by their colour – the males are a gingery brown whilst the females are almost jet black.
I have often seen them visiting flowers, but have never before come across a nest site. At the Barrington Court National Trust property in Somerset, I spotted several of the females investigating holes in the wall of an old stable. There were lots of nooks and crannies in the old pointing of the wall and the bees were flying into these to investigate. If they liked the site, they stayed and began work on excavating, pushing tiny fragments of material out of the hole to create a nest chamber. Often however, the hole seemed not to their liking and they tumbled back out and continued their search.
One of my favourite uses of modern technology is to gain little insights into something usually difficult to perceive – I think this is a nice example. Using the iPhone camera on slow motion video, I managed to get a few shots of the bees leaving the holes. They seem to tumble back and away from the hole and pause for a moment before continuing their search. Whether this is to steady themselves after their rather ungracious exit, or whether this is to conclude their inspection I am unsure, but the behaviour was quite consistent with different bees. The clip also shows how easily these powerful little bees can deal with the cobwebs of spiders which seem to share their taste in residences!
I stopped off at home today, to grab some lunch between a meeting and an afternoon in the office, and walking down the garden it felt like The Day. And sure enough, a quick check of a local bee-magnet revealed my first bumblebee of the year!
The spot in question is a footpath near my house which is lined with comfrey and a south-facing wooden fence which heats up beautifully in the sun – always a good pollen/nectar/heat source for cold spring bumblebees.
This is a buff-tailed bumblebee worker who was gathering pollen as well as nectar as it worked its way from flower to flower – this means that somewhere nearby there must already be a nest!
Watching this little bee realy did make my day – it felt like it marked the return of something joyous to the world!