As I attempt to write about the 1,500 plus species of animals and plants I have found in Dorset since I started looking in 2007 I occasionally come across a species about which it is almost impossible to say anything and I just do not no where to start, That is where I find myself with this sawfly, Macrophya duodecimpunctata.
I suppose, for a start, we do know it is a sawfly which means it is related to bees, wasps and ants in the family Hymenoptera. Sawflies are so named because the females have an ovipositor adapted for sawing into the stem of a chosen host plant in which to lay her eggs. In this case the host plant is usually a sedge and therefore the favoured habitat is marsh and I found this one along the marshy shores of Poole Harbour at the Eastern end by Holton Lee. It is in flight as an adult from May to July. The National Biodiversity Network distribution map shows a sketchy distribution with most records from coastal areas and records from Dorset seem quite sparse. Elsewhere on the Internet however it is described as locally common in southern England and then, on another website, it is considered uncommon!
To look at is about half an inche long and the female has a primarily black body but has two clear yellow spots, one on the back of the thorax and the other at the base of the abdomen; duo being two and punctata meaning spots. Where the decim, presumably ten comes from I cannot work out. The antennae have yellow bands. That is it, I can find nothing else!
Tenthredo mesomela: a sawfly
Sawflies are members of the same order as bees and wasps, the hymenoptera. Generally weak flying insects they do not travel far from the area in which they hatched and are often found on vegetation. Although they perhaps look as if they could be harmful they are not; they have no sting, do not bite and feed on pollen and very small insects.
This particular species, Tenthredo mesomela, has a wonderful metallic green and black colouring which makes it quite distinctive amongst sawflies. It is very much a woodland species where it lays eggs in rotting wood. Indeed, that is where the name sawfly comes from. The females of several species in the family have a saw-like ovipositor to enable them to 'saw' into wood to lay their eggs. The larvae feed at night, mainly on buttercups.
Widespread in Dorset woodlands but not common it can be seen from May through until july.
Echthrus reluctator: an ichneumon
The main reason why I write my nature notes is so that I can research a species and find out much more about it. With my collection of books together wite Google and Wikipedia I usually come up with some facts that I did not know about my subject for the day. Today the Internet has met its match! Whilst Google does return a few options for the ichneumon fly Echthrus reluctator there is no information of note anywhere about it!
So, what do I know? Well, firstly I am pretty certain that this is the ichneumon Echthrus reluctator, everything about its visual characteristics matches available images elsewhere and there are a number on the Internet. Secondly, as an ichneumon I know that it will predate another insect by laying eggs in either the adult or the larvae of its host and, thanks to my big book of insects, I know this to be wood boring beetles. It follows, therefore, that this is a woodland species. I also know it is not a common species, it being described as 'local'. Beyond that I am stuck.
That said, I do know it occurs in the woodland near Shipstal at Arne as I saw several crawling over a ragwort plant by the dragonfly ponds in mid-summer. They were a bit difficult to photograph so I apologise for the quality of the image.
Amblyteles armatorius: an ichneumon fly
Ichneumon flies are not flies at all, they are more closely related to wasps and bees in the order hymenoptera and that is not hard to believe when you see them, especially this one, Amblyteles armatorius, with its striking yellow and black colouring. This species is very common in mid-summer, frequently seen on the flowers of umbeliferae (especially Hogweed and Angelica) but you will also find them on thistles and brambles. It is probably the most common of the Ichneumons and can be seen by day in sunshine.
The colours say 'keep away, I'm dangerous' and although harmless to humans having no bite or sting, they are far from harmless to moth caterpillers, especially those of the noctuid family. The ichneumons are parasitic, laying their eggs inside a living caterpiller and the larvae then eats the caterpiller from the inside out! Nature can seem cruel at times and yet it is fascinating too. One can feel sorry for the moth or admire the ichneumon (or may be both?).
Ichneumon suspiciosus: an ichneumon fly
Although there are several similar species Ichneumon suspiciosus is one of the most common so applying my rule that I am statistically more likely to see a common species than a rare one I am going for suspiciosus. It has the half brown/half black abdomen, the orange legs and the yellow triangle just behind the head all of which tie in, I believe.
Ichneumons are parasitic insects and lay their eggs in the body of the larva of another creatures, moth caterpillars are the host of many including this species; the female ichneumons have a long sharp ovipositor for this very purpose. They are related to bees and wasps and that long ovipositor could be mistaken for a sting but, in general, they are harmless to humans although they can look pretty fierce!
Ichneumon suspiciosus: is very common on umbel flowers, especially hogweed, in summer and, unusually perhaps, the adult overwinters by hibernating just like queen bees and wasps
Pimpla instigator: an ichneumon fly
My identification of insects is hampered by many things. One is a refusal to take specimens home for examination and another is difficulty in finding suitable reference material with the information needed to make an good attempt at identification. In this case I am hampered even further by the rather poor quality of my photograph which is all I have to work on. After deliberation I am going to say that this is a species called Pimpla instigator but I am in no doubt that someone with a greater knowledge of these things will be quick to correct me.
I should, then, attempt to justify my identification by giving reasons. Firstly this has all the features of an ichneumon; a long, slender body, long legs and long antennae. So, from the possible ichneumon species Pimpla instigator is one of the more common ones. It is found most of the spring and summer often frequenting umbel flowers. It preys on various moth caterpillars and has no real preferred host species which might restrict its location or habitat. The stand out visual features are the long black body and the yellow/orange legs that are darker from the 'knee' down.
For me Pimpla instigator ticks all the boxes and although there are several similar species I do not have enough information about them to even start to consider alternatives. If it is not Pimpla instigator then I would be grateful for guidance to enable me to correct my mistake.
Pimpla turionellae: an ichneumon fly
I found this little creature in the window of our kitchen but despite being temporarily captive it proved a bit difficult to photograph! Once on camera I was able to identify is as an ichneumon fly, Pimpla turionellae. There are two very similar species the other being Pimpla rufipes but the black lower part of the rear legs is, apparently diagnostic of Pimpla turionellae!
As an ichneumon it is destined to lay its eggs in the pupae of a butterfly, it is not over fussy which species. Despite my love of butterflies I felt obliged to let it go by opening the window and then let nature take its course. It seems cruel but it is a hard world out there and the ichneumon has a right to life as well as the butterfly so in the end it will be the battle of the strongest.
Buathra laborator: the red-legged wasp
Sometimes reference books are of no help at all and you need an expert! So it was with this ichneumon I found on hogweed at Durlston. Despite searching my reference books and pondering the possibilities I could not find an identification I was happy with so I uploaded the photograph and a description to the excellent Ispot website (an Open University project) and sure enough, within the hour I had a positive identification, Buathra laborator.
Armed with a name I went back to my books and it is not in any of them! Google to rescue? There are some entries but in general, other than it is known as the red-legged wasp and the red-legged ichneumon there is very little else. It is a large insect and the female has a very long ovipositor. It is parasitic on caterpillars and that is about all I can find out. There is some thought that it is quite rare and others that it is just under recorded.
Wood Ant: passes the acid test
It only recently dawned on me that ants are related to bees and wasps, they are all of the order hymenoptera. One would think that they have little in common with their more air born cousins and, in appearance at least, that is possibly true in that they look very different to the most familiar species of wasps and bees that we might see. A closer look, though, reveals a resemblance to some species of solitary bee and digger wasps.
This is most noticeable in the wood ant (Formica rufa) because it is a larger insect and it easier to see the large, oval abdomen, thin waste and narrow thorax that is also a feature of some bees and wasps. Rather than in looks the ant is more akin to bees and wasps in its behaviour. It forms large colonies around a single queen with hundreds and hundreds of female workers tending her and her babies with a few males to keep the queen happy. In early spring they can be seen swarming in wriggling brown masses in coniferous woodlands across Dorset and, of course, several species of bees and wasps swarm in a similar way so perhaps there is a family likeness after all.
The wood ant does not sting like some of its relatives, instead it can (and does) fire formic acid from its rear end when disturbed and this can sting if you are on the receiving end of it. Jays are known to take advantage of this and 'bathe' in these ants nests to get the acid on their feathers to kill off parasites.
Wood ants are well known and can usually be found on heathland, and especially in conifer plantations, building huge mounds of pine needles as nests. They can also been seen crossing backwards and forwards in straight lines across woodland rides and footpaths on their way to and fro between a food supply and their nest.
I was surprised to learn that they are omnivorous and actually prefer animals for food and that they are great eaters of small insects. In some southern European countries they are a protected species because of their great value in destroying forest pests!
Hornet: stiring up a hornets nest
There can be hardly be a more feared insect in the British fauna than the hornet (Vespa crabro). Renowned for their powerful sting the old saying about not "stiring up a hornets nest" is, I am sure, a familiar one to all of us. Of course, they do not sting just for the pleasure of inflicting pain on someone but if you do, even unwittingly, stir up their nest they will defend it with ferocity! Treated with respect they will ignore humans and carry on with the business of raising their family.
Hornets are not as common as they once were mainly due to loss of their preferred habitat. They are primarily a woodland insect and are most often encountered in ancient woodland. They like a supply of soft, rotting timber to collect fragments of to make their wonderfully intricate nest made with layers of paper thin wood. They may be seen away from woodland in the autumn when their family work is done and they have time to roam. They hunt small insect prey on flower heads in summer
A member of the wasp family of course and they look like an oversized common wasp although are much more of a shade of orange than the bright yellow of the wasp. They cannot really be mistaken for anything else although some people do confuse the large hoverfly Volucella zonaria with a hornet but the hoverfly is totally lacking any form of sting.
Vespula vulgaris: the common wasp
If the rain doesn't spoil your late summer picnic or barbecue then there is a pretty good chance that everyone's pet hate, the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris), probably will! Sadly, although extremely 'intelligent' insects they can be a bit dumb when it comes to picking up signals that a human being means them harm. As a result, the wasp is quite prepared to fight back with that painful sting it has. I describe it as 'intelligent' as it is one of those remarkable insects that work selflessly together for the good of its colony. Tireless workers, each with a job to do and they know what to do and how to do it!
This is a photo taken early in the year of one collecting wood to help build the wonderful 'paper mache' nest. It is chewing up a wooden bench seat! I like wasps; I admire wasps; but I hate wasps hanging around me when I am trying to enjoy a nice cream cake outside my favourite tea rooms!
Red-banded Sand Wasp: living down under
Not all wasps are yellow and black and spoil your barbecue or picnic! There are many species of wasps and can be quite variable despite being closely related. Some nest in communities like the familiar common wasp but others are solitary with the females living alone and bring up their young without hordes of workers to help.
The red-banded sand wasp (Ammophila sabulosa) is one of those solitary species. They nest underground and the sandy soil of the Purbeck heaths is ideal for them. They have an interesting way of life; having dug their burrow they then find a caterpillar or other insect larvae, often much bigger than itself, and paralyse it with their sting and then carry or drag the victim back to the burrow. Once underground they lay their eggs on their prey so that the hatchling larvae have a ready made food supply. That may seem a bit gruesome but it is actually no different to us killing a cow for our Sunday joint.
The adult wasps can be seen from June through until September across dry heathland in Purbeck. There are similar species but the red-tailed sand wasp is probably the one most likely to be seen.
Crabro cribrarius: the slender-bodied digger wasp
Digger wasps are another challenge to the very amateur naturalist so to find one with a distinctive feature is a real help! The slender-bodied digger wasp (Crabro cribrarius) is one of those species due to the antennae which are crumpled, by that I mean quite short and bent. The remind me of the wing mirrors on modern day coaches!
Being a digger wasp it excavates a burrow as its nest and so it will be found mainly where the soil is soft and that can be coastal areas where there is sandy soil although it will be found in other environments too including chalk grassland. The burrow has several chambers for the young wasps which the adult wasp provisions with small flies.
This is a larger wasp and could possibly be mistaken for the common wasp but closer on inspection those crumpled antennae are unmistakable. It can be seen from June until August and whilst you might see it on the ground you are more likely to find it feeding or hunting for flies on hogweed and similar flowers.
Mellinus arvensis: the field digger wasp
Everyone is surely familar with the common yellow and black wasp species, Vespula vulgaris; a social wasp, living in colonies and extremely aggressive if disturbed or threatened. However, there are many other species of wasps, not all of which are yellow and black, and most of which live a pretty solitary life. This species, Mellinus arvensis, is one of those solitary wasp species.
Also known as the field digger wasp, this species excavates a burrow by digging with her mandible and legs. She then finds a spider (or may be more than one depending on the size of the spider) and paralyses it with her sting and then drags the spider in to her burrow where she then lays her eggs inside the spider. The eggs hatch and the larva eat the spider before pupating and over wintering to the emerge as adults in the spring.
A bit gruesome may be but this sort of thing is going on, usually unseen, in the natural world all the time.
Cerceris arenaria: the sand tailed digger wasp
Being a species that digs a burrow for its young to develop in the sand tailed digger wasp (Cerceris arenaria) is found where the digging is easy. Quite rare nationally it is frequently found on some of Dorset's more sandy heaths, particularly to the north of Poole harbour, and along the sandy cliffs around Bournemouth and Southbourne.
Their striking yellow and black abdomen give the impression at first glance that they are the common wasp but on closer examination they can be seen to be a much more slender insects and the markings are quite different.
The adults are on the wing in July and August and they have a real taste for weevils which, apparently, they carry back to their burrows upside down. I guess the underparts are softer and easier to grip?
Colletes hederae: the ivy bee
Now this delightful little solitary bee (Colletes hederae) is a real treat. Although present across much of Europe it was first recorded in this country in Langton Matravers, Dorset in 2001 and in the short time since has spread across much of southern England. It nests in sandy soils and so is found mainly in coastal locations but is appearing more and more inland.
This species of bee does not emerge until September when its main nectar plant, ivy (Hedera helix) is in flower and that is obviously where it takes it scientific name from, hederae meaning 'of the ivy' and hence its colloquial name, the ivy bee.
Now quite plentiful along the Dorset coast, it is well worth looking for them where ever you find ivy in flower and with the sun shining on it. They are active little bees and you may need to watch a while until one decides to settle down for lunch and then you can have a good look at it.
The ivy bee is not a pest of anything and not a threat to anything and so should be seen as a welcome arrival to our shores, not all in-comers are bad!
Andrena bicolor: a solitary mining bee:
An amateur naturalist's knowledge is always going be restricted by the quality of reference material available which is usually going to be a field guide. I have looked for years for a top quality field guide to insects but have yet to find one so inevitably I photograph a number of insects I can never identify.
n the early spring we have a number of these small bees in our garden. They are less than half an inch long they fly around almost continuously, perching only briefly on a leaf before launching off again. I believe this to be Andrena bicolor, a 'mining bee'; one that nests under ground and you often see little 'volcanoes' on sandy soils from which they have emerged or where they intend to lay their eggs. I have found no such mounds in our garden as yet but then, if this is the species I think it might be, ours appear to be nearly all males!
Andrena bicolor in one of the very early species of mining bee to appear, March and April are their peak months. They are very partial to dandelions and blackthorn blossom. The females have quite a brownish-red back, the male is duller as in this photo. The male also has a yellow tip to its abdomen which one can also just make out in this photo.
So, from the limited information at my disposal I am putting this down as Andrena bicolor but if I am wrong I would be really grateful if someone would enlighten me. Thanks.
Ashy Mining Bee: Andrena cineraria
The 'andrena' bees are often known as mining bees as they nest underground, usually in sandy banks and soil where it is easy to burrow. As a result they are quite often seen on the heaths of Dorset where they feed on heather. They are honey bees, collecting pollen from a wide range of flowers, but only the female takes pollen back to her nest to feed the young larvae. They are important pollinators of crops.
Seen in spring and throughout the summer, Andrena cineraria is best identified by its generally black body with white hairs, the thorax in particular has a lot of white hairs but these can wear and fade as the summer goes on.
Known as the ashy mining bee (or the grey mining bee) it is a solitary bee as each female makes her own nest and tends her own young rather than live in a hive with workers.
Andrena haemorrhoa: the early mining bee
Andrena bees are commonly known as mining bees because they build nests under ground and you find a pile of spoil around the entrance as a result of their excavations. Andrenas form one of the largest groups of bees and there are many similar species. This one, Andrena haemorrhoa, is one of the first to emerge each spring and so is commonly called the early mining bee.
It is not a large species, smaller than a honey bee but not dissimilar in general appearance but the brown, furry thorax and the black abdomen set it apart. In older specimens the brown fur may be rubbed away and the bee can be almost totally smooth black. This is the female by the way, the males are smaller, slightly different in colouration and are seen much less often.
Andrena haemorrhoa emerge in March and can be seen through until June and their nest holes are a common site in garden lawns, amenity grassland (playing fields, etc) as well as on paths and dry ground. They are most often seen on feeding dandelions, blackthorn and sallow.
Mining Bee: Andrena thoracica
This attractive bee (Andrena thoracica) is a member of the andrena family which are mining bees and as such, nest in holes they excavate in the earth, usually sandy soils that are easy to burrow in to. In such soils you often see little volcanoes, a conical heap of sand with a hole at the centre and these can be the work of mining bees although digger wasps also do this.
There are several species in the family, some difficult to tell apart but this one, Andrena thoracica, is quite distinctive because it is generally black but with a bright orange/brown thorax.
The Andrena's also have short tongues which limits the sort of flowers they can visit to gather pollen and they can be important pollinators of such flowers whereas bumblebees have long tongues and specialise in tubular flowers.
Andrena bees are amongst the first species of bees to appear in the spring although this one, thoracica, comes later. This one was photographed on Wareham Common on a meadow thistle in July.
Grey-patched Mining Bee: Andrena nitidi
Sadly I have not been able to find out much about the grey-patched mining bee (Andrena nitidi) and the best source of information can be found on the Bees, wasps and ant recording society's web site here: http://www.bwars.com/index.php?q=bee/andrenidae/andrena-nitida. For those of you not wishing to follow the link here is a summary of some of what is known about this species.
This is a large species of mining bee (one that excavates a nest under ground). It has a reddish (foxy) brown thorax and a shiny (polished) abdomen but the female has grey hairs on the thorax which is where the common names comes from of course. It is a fairly common species in southern Britain, less so further north, and is generally active between April and June on grasslands. It feeds on the pollen of several types of flower including dandelions,
This species is believed to be parasitised by other species of bee, particularly Gooden's nomad bee.
Lasioglossum calceatum: the slender mining bee:
Whilst walking across the downs at Durlston one day in summer I could not help but notice hundreds of small holes in the bare ground on the path and lots of small insects either flying around or at rest near by. I was eventually able to find one at rest long enough to get this photograph. Given the insect itself was only a few millimetres long this photo came out quite well and I was able to get an identification, it is the slender mining bee (Lasioglossum calceatum).
This is a common mining bee in southern England and can be seen from April through until October and I saw it in May just as its breeding activity was beginning to get under way, hence all the activity. Whilst the are solitary bees, that is to say they do not have a hive with queen and workers, the do seem to like to nest in colonies. Being a mining bee it digs a small nest in underground and that is why the path was peppered with small holes. The Latin name suggest a preference for calcareous soils and that is certainly what you get at Durlston which is limestone.
This species is also known as the common furrow-bee.
Wool Carder Bee: wishing and hoping
When I discovered this insect in our garden I thought at first it was a bee-mimicking hoverfly as it would rest a while on a leaf, then take off and hover around for a minute or two before returning to its resting place. Having failed to find a hoverfly fitting the description I widened my search and discovered that it is, in fact, a bee - the wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum). It is related to leaf-cutter bees but this one does not cut up leaves it gathers (cards) fibrous hairs from the leaves of some garden plants to line its nest.
This particular specimen is a male. He spent several days in our garden around a flower that has very white furry leaves and he used that as his base camp. He waited around that plant wishing and hoping a female might come by to gather woollen material for her nest; if one did I am pretty sure he was ready to strike! Whether he was lucky I do not know, one day he was gone never to be seen again.
Megachile centuncularis: the patchwork leaf-cutter bee
Leaf-cutter by name because a leaf cutter by nature. Leaf-cutter bees cut pieces out of leaves, often rose leaves in gardens, to make cells in their nests in to which they lay their eggs. They nest in crevices above ground, often in decaying wood and old walls, sometimes in garden canes.
There are six species of leaf-cutter bee in the British Isles and this one, the patchwork leaf-cutter (Megachilecentuncularis), is a southern species and the one of the most encountered as it does have a liking for gardens and your best roses. However, it is such a fascinating and entertaining little creature I think you would have to forgive it for any limited damage it might do. They use leaves for nesting but visit brambles and thistles for food.
Just under half an inch long they can be seen from late May through until August by which time their work is done and their larvae are snug inside their leafy nests until they emerge in the following spring.
Leaf-cutter Bee: Megachile willughbiella
Megachile willughbiella is is a bee I am very fond of; sadly my wife, who is the gardener, is not quite so keen.
Not only is it an attractive little package in appearance (well I think so anyway) it is a fascinating insect to watch as it brings pieces of leaf and drags them in to the end of garden bamboo canes where it is making its nest. Each leaf taken in forms the basis of a sausage shaped egg cell. The problem is, they have a liking for rose leaves for this purpose and can take chunks out of several leaves as they go about making a home for their little ones.
You cannot claim to have a wildlife garden on the one hand and then complain about a few rose leaves being taken away and put to good use on the other. As a result, we gladly tolerate them, indeed we both actually welcome them as they are lovely little B's.
If you are wondering where it got a name with willughbiella in it, it seems to have been first identified and named by some called Willughby!
Goodens Nomad Bee: cuckoo, cuckoo
This may look like a wasp; indeed I thought it was a wasp until I used the Open University I-spot website to get an identification. This is actually a bee, a nomad bee. In fact, it is Gooden's nomad bee (Nomada goodeniana).
The adult nomad bee feeds on nectar. They are fond of dandelions in the spring but they do not have pollen or nectar collecting equipment. The female waits until an andrena bee female has excavated a nest tunnel in the ground and has provisioned a nest cell with pollen for her larva which takes many pollen gathering trips. Whilst she is away the Nomad female will take advantage of the host's absence to visit the cell and lay her own egg in it. Just like the cuckoo! Seems a bit of a lazy approach to life but it obviously works.
The species was named by someone called Kirby in 1802 but I presume Mr Gooden was the first person to identify it a species.
Bombus jonellus: the heathland bumble-bee
This bumble-bee (Bombus jonellus) has no common name but if it did it could justifiably be called the heathland bumble-bee although it is not confined to heaths by any means. It is very similar to other light coloured tailed bumble-bees, especially Bombus hortorum (the small garden bumblebee) but it has two buff bands on the thorax. The pollen sacks tend to be orange rather than yellow.
This is quite a small bee and very active, rarely settling anywhere for long as it works its way around the heather flowers. This is an early emerging species and in spring it loves to indulge in the flowers of sallow but can also be found in gardens, especially where there are winter flowering heathers to be raided.
I affectionately call this the John Lewis bumble-bee (see its latin name)!
Large Red-tailed Bumble-bee: red tails in the sunset!
The buff-tailed bumble-bee is the first bumble to emerge each spring and it will have been around for a few weeks before next common bumble-bee on the wing, the large red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius), emerges in late March. At first we see the queens; large, slow moving bees with a preference for yellow flowers. Later in the summer we will see female worker bees that are the same markings but much smaller.
The queens hibernate for the winter and their first job when they emerge is to stock up on food and they can immerse themselves in a flower head consuming nectar almost oblivious to the presence of anything, including a camera lens! They nest under ground or in wall cavities and that will be the queens next task, to find a suitable nest site.
Quite distinctive markings, almost totally black with a red tail-end, but there is a small red-tailed bumblebee as well which is much less common, flies later in the summer and is a more orange colour in the tail. They are, however, still very difficult to tell from the male large-tailed which is not very big at all!
White-tailed Bumble-bee: a common or garden bee
The white-tailed bumble-bee (Bombus lucorum) is also commonly known as the garden bumble-bee. It is very common throughout the spring and summer visiting a wide variety of flowers for nectar. This catholic taste means that garden flowers are as popular as wild flowers. Later in the summer when thistles and their relatives are coming in to bloom it is often a case of find a thistle, find a white-tailed bumble-bee. They are particularly keen on musk thistles where you can sometimes find three or four to a flower head.
Bumble-bees, especially ones with white tails, can be very difficult to distinguish but as this one is on greater knapweed in late summer and has colour bands of buff-black-buff-black-white with a particularly white tail I believe this to be a female worker of this species. That said, worker buff-tailed bumble-bees are incredibly similar and it is difficult to tell them apart with any certainty so please forgive me if I am wrong! The bands of colour are the usual way to separate bumble-bee species but it does not always work!
Bumble-bees, and not just this species, are vital to the pollination of plants and are essential to the future of human food supplies and need to be encouraged and helped to thrive but despite that they are also just lovely creatures in their own right, useful or not, and we should welcome them!
Bombus hypnorum: the millennium bee
Nature is always changing. The population of some species are rapidly declining (the cuckoo for example) whereas as others are expanding (like the little egret). We have new species colonising our countryside which are a concern (like the harlequin ladybird) and others that are a welcome addition to our fauna. The tree bumble-bee (Bombus hypnorum) is certainly one of the later.
Bombus hypnorum has steadily expanded its range across Europe in recent years and was first recorded in the United Kingdom in 2000 and so perhaps we should call this the millennium bee? It seems to have an affinity to urban areas and to woodland habitat of all kinds and it is expected to become widespread and common across the whole country in time which is a refreshing change as some species of bumble-bee are in serious decline in the United Kingdom.
I saw these for the first time in Puddletown Forest (May 2012), an area I would not rate highly for wildlife interest and yet there were several of them so they seem well established there. I have no dubt I will see them in other places as time moves on.
Buff-tailed bumblebee: down to earth
One of the first insects to be seen in spring each year is the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris). Although known as the buff-tailed bumblebee the name can be misleading as it is not the only bumbleebee with a buff tail! However, the two honey coloured bands, one on the thorax and one on the abdomen help you pin it down.
The queens, which hibernate, are large, bulky insects and can be up and about from February onwards but they can also be seen at any time during the winter if we have extended mild weather. Only the queens hibernate, the workers and drones die off in the autumn. The queen carries fertile eggs over the winter and lays them in early spring, then she sets about feeding them herself. They can be regular visitors to any winter flowering plant you may have in your garden. They will visit a wide range of flowers but they have a very short tongue and so will often bite through the base of the corolla on long tubed flowers to get to the nectar. You can also often find them sun-bathing on a leaf.
Bumblebees are lovely, furry creatures and pretty harmless too. They add another dimension to your garden wildlife and should be encouraged.
Common carder bee: not a rolling stone
The common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) is the most common carder bee. Unlike a rolling stone it collects moss! it uses this to cover its nest, hence the term carder or gatherer. Nests can be quite large with over a hundred workers.
This bee is almost totally ginger brown but it has dark hairs on the abdomen which distinguish it from similar, but rarer, species.
This is a very common bee in gardens, especially in mid summer, on a wide range of flowers but it favours pea-type and nettle type flowers as well as being very fond of foxgloves. It is a widespread species, occurring in all sorts of habitat and is often found in woodlands.
Vestal Cuckoo-bee: not such a busy bee
The vestal cuckoo bee (Bombus vestalis) is like the familiar cuckoo bird; they lay eggs in other bees nests which they take over, especially those of Bombus terrestris, the buff-tailed bumble-bee, which are usually underground nests. There are several species of cuckoo-bee but this one, Bombus vestalis, is by far the most common.
The bands can be quite variable on this species. The thorax band on this one is almost white and they can be buff coloured on others, especially newly emerged bees. The get greyer with age apparently!
On most bumble-bees you will see pollen sacks on the hind legs where the insect collects pollen to take back to its young. Being a cuckoo the cuckoo-bee has no need to do this as the poor adult host bee will do the work for them.
Busy as a bee eh? Not this one, it leaves the work to others.
Honey bee: a hive of activity
The arrival of spring is marked by many things but one of the most noticeable is the almost sudden presence of honey bees (Apis mellifera) in our gardens again having been absent during the winter months. They busily work around any flowers that are open and providing pollen and nectar. They are constantly active and going to and fro from their hive where new grubs are waiting to be fed. Unless you are a bee keeper it is so easy to take them for granted and perhaps not give them the consideration they deserve.
Given that there has been quite a lot of talk recently about various species (insects, birds, mammals and plants) that have come to this country and made their home here and are now considered a pest, may be we should give the honey bee a bit more thought? The current thinking is that these invaders are not natural and their progress should be checked; the Ringed-necked Parakeet has been particularly under attack, so too the harlequin ladybird, Japanese knotweed and Indian balsam. Much effort and vast sums are being spent on trying to eradicate rhododendron and work is in hand to reduce the numbers of sika deer.
However, this country's agricultural economy is pretty dependent on the honey bee to carry out the bulk of the pollination of cultivated plants and yet the honey bee is a native of South America but it has adapted well to European climes and prospers here. Well, until recently at least, as a considerable number of hives are being lost as a result of the varroa mite and many more to the use of insecticides in our fields.
It is a tricky debate. Should all invading species be controlled to reduce the impact on our native species? Is it hypocritical to be selective in which ones we accept and which ones we attack? Should we do nothing and let nature take its natural course? We need to remember that many of these invaders were brought here by humans in the first place! It is often a man made problem so is it man's role to do something about it? Yes, difficult ethical and practical questions, just what is the answer?