Bees and wasps

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Narrow-headed Ants Formica exsecta
Narrow-headed Ants Formica exsecta 12 October 2018

This summer I have been fortunate to be able to spend many hours studying one of Britain’s rarest invertebrates, the narrow-headed ant Formica exsecta. This ant is now known from a single site in England and several sites in the Scottish Highlands. It is currently the subject of a Back from the Brink project which is hoping to return the ant to some of its former sites.

Long-horned Bees Prawle 2017
Long-horned Bees Prawle 2017 04 February 2018

I visited Prawle on the south Devon coast five times last summer searching for the stunning long-horned bee Eucera longicornis. This rapidly declining bee has one of its few remaining strongholds here. At the end of May over 20 males were observed patrolling the nest sites along the base of a low clay cliff and over a patch of bird’s-foot trefoil flowers.

During my next visit on 14 June several females were busy digging out nest burrows in the same area. The males had spread out further afield with some in gardens in the nearby village of East Prawle. The dry spring and a lack of grazing on the adjoining meadow led to a superabundance of clovers and vetches. This was probably due to the more vigorous grass growth being suppressed earlier in the season allowing the legumes more light and space to flower profusely. During the visit a Six-banded Nomad bee Nomada sexfasciata made a brief visit to the nest colony. This bee is a cuckoo in the nests of the long-horned bees and is now one of the UKs rarest bees being currently known only from this short stretch of coast at Prawle. There are just a handful of sightings each year and the bee is considered to be in danger of extinction in the UK.

Hairy-footed Bees in Exeter
Hairy-footed Bees in Exeter 07 September 2017

Last spring I carried on my observations of the hairy-footed bees Anthophora plumipes in the ancient cob wall at Alphington Church in Exeter. As usual the bees started flying in early March and I visited on the first real sunny day in the month. There was plenty of activity from the bees and the hungry Segestria florentina spiders which were lurking in their silk-lined tubes in the wall. As the bees returned to holes in the wall to roost in the late afternoon the spiders had a field day. I saw several bees end up in the metallic green jaws of the spiders and managed to video a near miss – watch here

Common Wasps
Common Wasps 31 January 2017

During the late autumn I spent several days watching common wasps Vespula vulgaris at their nests. Having a nest in the ground on my allotment was an excellent pest control measure. Despite large numbers of ‘cabbage white’ butterflies around the plot none of the cabbages were damaged as the caterpillars were quickly found and consumed by the wasps. The other nest was in the vertical bank by the River Dart on Dartmoor. Here I could sit fairly close without the wasps getting annoyed and watch them around the nest entrance. It was a large nest with about 100 wasps in and out every minute bringing in prey items such as flies and caterpillars. During November hundreds of new queens emerged from the nest. These could be recognised by their large hunched abdomens. They were also hesitant at the nest entrance as they emerged in to the light for the first time. Watch video here.

Hornets hunting
Hornets hunting 12 November 2016

Our largest wasp the hornet Vespa crabro is an impressive insect and I always enjoy watching them hunt for insect prey in late summer. Clumps of flowering ivy are good places to find them. They will feed on the nectar but are much more interested in the other insects attracted to this autumnal feast. I spent several days in September and October this year watching them hunt around a farmyard ivy clump and around a patch of water mint in a wet meadow on the edge of Dartmoor.

Furrow bee roost
Furrow bee roost 27 September 2016

Towards the end of summer each year a roost of tiny bees builds up in our garden. They are male common furrow bees Lasioglossum calceatum. The females live underground in burrows but the males, with no home to go to, gather to roost together, usually on a seedhead. During August this year I noticed the roost and this built up to a peak of 14 in mid September with just a few remaining until the end of the month.

Wool Carder Bees
Wool Carder Bees 03 September 2016

My first encounter with solitary bees was watching a male wool carder bee Anthidium manicatum around the lavender patch by our front doorstep in 2006. The following year I planted out some lambs ear Stachys lanata in the garden hoping to attract them again but in a series of poor summers none appeared. Then in 2014 another appeared around a patch of woundwort so I planted out more lambs ear and this time had great success.

Anthophora plumipes the hairy-footed bee
Anthophora plumipes the hairy-footed bee 27 March 2016

One of my favourite places to visit in the spring is an ancient red cob brick wall on the outskirts of Exeter. The wall must be hundreds of years old and is now riddled with small holes which make it an ideal nesting site for a large colony of Anthophora plumipes the hairy-footed flower bee. These are about the size of a small bumblebee, the males buff coloured with yellow faces and the females all black with orange hind legs. The south-facing wall provides a sun trap for these warmth-loving insects but not everything is in the bees favour as there are monsters lurking here.

Yellow Loosestrife Bees
Yellow Loosestrife Bees 06 October 2015

During August I made two trips to track down Macropis europaea The Yellow Loosestrife Bee. As its name suggests this bee is associated with Yellow Loosestrife Lysimachia vulgaris. The nearest known sites to me are around Wool, Dorset so I checked out an area by the River Stour without success. Moving on to Bournemouth I got caught in holiday traffic jams and eventually decided to head for a quieter area. I finally caught up with the bees at the Dorset Wildlife Trusts’ Troublefield Nature Reserve near Hurn. A series of flower rich meadows and riverside vegetation grazed by some docile Shetland cattle. The bees were easily found once I had located a good stand of loosestrife amongst riverside vegetation.

Silvery leafcutter bees
Silvery leafcutter bees 05 October 2015

I spent a few days in early July watching a colony of Silvery leafcutter bees Megachile leachella nesting in a sandy bank on Exmouth seafront. Males patrolled the colony jumping on any females which flew by. The females were flying in with pollen laden abdomens and cut sections of leaves for their nests. A patch of orache and a snowberry bush were favoured sites for leaf cutting. The bee would spend a while selecting a suitable leaf then neatly cut a circular section, occasionally then trimming it to size before flying back to the nest.

Osmia aurulenta - the leaf mastic bee
Osmia aurulenta - the leaf mastic bee 23 September 2015

During the spring and early summer I made several trips to a lovely spot on the undercliffs near Lyme Regis to observe another snail shell nesting bee Osmia aurulenta also known as the Golden-haired Mason Bee. It is about the same size as Osmia bicolor but from what little I knew had slightly different behaviour.

Osmia bicolor the snail thatching bee 2015
Osmia bicolor the snail thatching bee 2015 21 September 2015

I was keen to spend some more time observing this fascinating bee this year. In March I visited Cerne Abbas and put out some suitably sized banded snail shells where I had seen the bees previously. This worked again as a female was regularly bringing in loads of yellow pollen to one of these on 14th April.

Spring mining bees - Andrena  clarkella
Spring mining bees - Andrena clarkella 03 April 2015

Over the winter I have been attempting to learn how to identify all of the 270 British bees. So I was looking forward to early March when I could go and find and sketch the living insects. The beautiful Andrena clarkella is one of the earliest to emerge and is a specialist collector of willow pollen. This year I saw the first on 4th March at Bovey Heath.

Tachysphex the grasshopper hunting wasp
Tachysphex the grasshopper hunting wasp 14 July 2014

I have spent many hours over the last week sat beside a small piece of bare ground on Bovey Heath. This tiny patch of habitat is alive with insect activity on hot days. There are two Heath Potter wasps which use the clay soil to build their nests in the heather and gorse nearby and the mining bee Anthophora bimaculata males often settle on the quarry to warm up before whizzing around the nearby bramble blossom looking for females. The insect which has fascinated me most this week is the grasshopper hunting wasp Tachysphex pompiliformis. I had only seen this wasp with prey once before on the heath so was delighted to find a few females excavating their burrows in the gravelly clay soil and provisioning them with meadow grasshoppers.

Long-horned Bees
Long-horned Bees 30 June 2014

The male Long-horned Bee Eucera longicornis is a fabulous insect, unmistakeable with his outsized blue-black antennae. Sadly this bee has declined significantly in the last 30 years and is now found at scattered sites in southern England. The south Devon coast around Prawle is now the stronghold for this bee in Britain and the only site where the populations are strong enough to support its cuckoo bee Nomada sexfasciata.

Osmia bicolor the snail thatching bee
Osmia bicolor the snail thatching bee 20 May 2014

I began studying solitary bees a few years ago whilst working on the ecology of their nest parasites the oil beetles. The bees are a truly fascinating group of insects which have largely been neglected by naturalists due to the lack of a current identification guide. I first learnt about the amazing behaviour of the snail shell dwelling Osmia bicolor whilst reading Val Littlewoods blog page.

Ivy Bees
Ivy Bees 16 October 2013

The Ivy Bees Colletes hederae are now on the wing and great to watch, especially when the females first emerge. Recently I visited three sites on the south Devon coast to sketch them. On the 5th October at Bantham there were hundreds of females digging burrows and bringing in pollen already so the emergence must have taken place in late September. The next day I visited Branscombe and here there were just males flying around the nest site exploring holes and waiting for the females to emerge. Then at Weston Mouth near Sidmouth on 10th October I managed to see several females emerge from their burrows and the frantic scrums of males as the matings took place.

Ivy Bees
Ivy Bees 04 October 2012

The Ivy Bee emergence is now reaching a peak. Today I watched a huge colony in the base of a cliff at Branscombe near Sidmouth. As the midday sun warmed the slope hundreds of males began patrolling the slope. Several new females emerged from their burrows and were immediately pounced on by several males and a mating pair eventually emerged from the scrum. They female then carried the male off to a quieter spot to mate in peace.