I’ve been mulling over a post on bees for some time now. The Summer is finally here and with it more and more flowers are appearing, bringing out bees in force. Moths are tricky enough, but bees are harder to catch and photograph … and potentially have a sting in the tail. Steven Falk’s fabulous fieldguide (illustrations by Richard Lewington) points out that the male bees can be handled safely because they don’t sting, but I’m not yet confident enough to know the girls from the boys. Trial and error doesn’t appeal too much here!
The easiest group to start with have been the Bumblebees (Bombus). Large and visible, they make for relatively easy targets and I’m finding that, with a relatively limited number of species, I can use the visible markings to work them out in most cases – though I have purchased a transparent pot with a plunger to hold them for close inspection. In this post I’m concentrating exclusively on them, illustrating the ones I’ve found.
As with everything, understanding the cycle and rhythm of the year and how it links to behaviour helps enormously. As I understand it, the Queen appears first, waking from their hibernation and looking for good nesting sites. She has been fertiled the previous year by male bees, carrying the sperm in her abdomen, and once she’s developed a nest she lays fertilised eggs which become workers (females, but not royalty). These emerge to start work on foraging to continue to support the nest, building nesting cells, stocking them with nectar and pollen and generally getting on with the housework. This is why they carry ‘pollen baskets’ – structures on their hind legs – often with lumps of pollen, mushed with moisture to stick the leg, and clearly visible on this female Hairy-footed Flower Bee (the only non-Bombus in this post), which was conveniently nesting in my in-laws Exmouth garden.
Males don’t tend to appear until later in the year. These are from eggs that the queen did not fertilise with the sperm stored in her body. Once they have grown they leave the nest and await their task in life, which is to mate with new queens leaving old nests so that the cycle can start again. Because they don’t live in the nest they can apparently be found sheltering under flowers at night – though I’ve not yet seen this.
Whilst interesting, it also means that bees seen up until this time of year are very likely to be workers, the queens being in the nest and the males only just beginning to emerge. The default bee in the early part of the year is B. terrestris (Buff-tailed Bumblebee). They are the only species that can survive all year. Indeed, this queen – and they are enormous – pitched up in our bedroom on Dec 4th, 2015 having climbed in from the wisteria that hangs outside.
You can clearly see the ‘buff’ tail and also the clean yellow bands which look neat and tidy. The workers, though patterned the same way, tend have a cleaner white tail, only tinged with buff at the point where it joins the black on the rest of the abdomen. I think this is an example … but I have to say at this point that I’m really on the edge of what I know here and so if I’ve got it wrong, someone can help me out.
These Buff-tailed Bumbles are one of several that have the classic black body with yellow stripes. This also includes the Garden BB (B. hortorum) shown below.
Note the yellow round the ‘middle’ of the bee is on both thorax and abdomen though, unlike the neat stripe of the Buff-tailed on abdomen only and also the white tail. This is where things get tricky though because despite their name the tails on the Buff-tailed workers are also white. What’s more there are melanic forms which lack the yellow stripes. My wife thinks I’m a changed man because I’ve suddenly become fond of visiting garden centres, but they harbour plenty of bees of course, including this melanic form of B. hortorum which you can compare with the worker above. (Worth noting that it could also be hypnorum, below, which can look similar.)
After B. hortorum, the next ‘black and yellow’ Bombus is this one:
It’s like a stocky, furrier version of B. terrestris and is B. pratorum – Early BB. Though is has the yellow stripes, they are less neat than B. Terrestris and, as the next photo shows, it has a lovely orangey tail.
As the name suggests, they are one of the first to appear and seem to love flowering fruit bushes, such as this raspberry, but also bramble. They are busy little things, hurriedly passing from flower to flower to find pollen and nectar. I spent a lovely hour or so with the camera trying to catch shots of them and spent long enough at a single bush to notice the way they pass over flowers that have been recently visited by other bees – chemical signals having been left behind which decay at the same rate as the flower refills its nectar vessel.
In addition to the ones above that I’ve had so far this year, I’ve had four other Bumblebees. Firstly, B. hypnorum – Tree BB.
This is interesting because of its rate of spread. Falk and Lewington (2015: 388) report that it was:
added to the Bristish list in 2001 from a site in Wiltshire following a well-documented expansion in Europe. It has shown a remarkable rate of spread since then, appearing in almost every county of England and Wales and becoming fairly common in many suburban areas. It was discovered in Scotland in 2013 and had reached Mull by 2014.
Certainly, it’s appeared regularly in my garden and the surrounding area and is one of the regular visitors. Whilst distinctive, Falk notes that it can be confused with the other set of Bumbles with ginger thorax, the Carder bees. Below, I think, is Common Carder – B. pascuorum – and it shows the similarities.
Also maintaining the ginger/red theme is the very distinctive Red-tailed Bumblebee – B. lapidarius. Most people will know this one because of the very distinctive jet black body and bright red tail of the queen/worker. Today, Matt and I saw two enormous Queens/workers on Bicton Common and they are quite a sight, but despite their size I couldn’t get a good photo with my iPhone so this one is a photo from 2015, of a male (note the yellow haired face).
My final Bombus is B. vestalis – Vestal Cuckoo Bumblebee.
I’ve posted about this before, so will not repeat it here, but it’s a parasitic, cuckoo to B. terrestris, penetrating the nest and laying its eggs in place of the host. It’s a cunning trick, and one that is obviously successful.
So, that’s my current gallery of Bombus bees. There are others that I stand a chance of getting locally I think – Brown-banded Carder (B. humilis) and Heath Bumblebee (B. jonellus) are possible. For most of the others I think I’ll need to travel further afield because they are local. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the search.