Posted by: Ross Gardner | March 16, 2012

Mining Bees

I spotted a small mining bee on a bare, sunny bank a couple of days back.  I see them there every spring and in good number, but March 14th was the earliest I can remember noticing them on the wing.   It was a member of the Andrena genus, the species of which I couldn’t say with 100% certainty; the checklist on the BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society) website  contains almost 80 species, many of which require close examination by a very expert eye for crucial identification.  However, given the timing of the sighting and its general appearance, Andrena haemorrhoa – the Early Mining Bee – might be a decent guess.

Mining Bee (Andrena sp.). Ross Gardner

Smaller than a Honey Bee and less readily capturing our affections as the bumblebee, theirs is an often abundant (although some species are very rare) and fascinating presence in the countryside and garden.  They are solitary bees, but will nest in often large congregations at the same location, usually in sparsely vegetated, sunny and warm locations.  The nest is a burrow excavated in the soil (hence the term ‘mining bee’) by the female, perhaps containing five or so eggs and stocked with a mixture of pollen and nectar.  These bees are indeed extremely useful as pollinators of crops, particularly fruit trees.

Associated with them are other insects, equally as overlooked.  They have their parasites.  The Bee-fly (Bombylius major is or most common species) is a furry bumblebee mimic that may be seen buzzing around the nest entrances; the adults are harmless nectar feeders, but the larvae feed on the grubs of solitary bees and wasp.  Nomad Bees (Nomada sp.) are parasites of a different kind, invading the nest of mining bees for the use of their own egg-laying.  Not exactly pleasant, perhaps, but no less interesting for it.

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