March is here, and it's great to put an end to the 'wettest winter' on record and look forward to the spring ahead. But what sort of damage has the weather done to our Bee population?
The one thing certain about the British weather is that there is nothing certain about the British weather. The devastation caused to communities on the Somerset Levels has been well reported and some of the residents are more hostile to the Press than they are to the Environment Agency. It will be a very long time before they can reclaim any sort of normality and only a very heartless person would minimise their plight. My job is, however, to draw your attention to other aspects of rural life and the effects of the ‘wettest winter on record’ are manifold. Anything that lives underground will have suffered tremendously and it can be assumed that anything hibernating underground will have succumbed. Many creatures such as water voles, shrews, wood mice, foxes and badgers will either have headed for the hills or been overwhelmed. The grass is not the only thing that has died out there.
Bumble bees, wasps and many species of solitary bees spend their winters in a state of torpor beneath the soil. It can be guaranteed that the vast expanse of southern Britain that was flooded recently is now totally devoid of bee species that hibernate underground. Not least of these is the Shrill Carder Bee (Bombus Sylvarum), which is extremely rare and has just become much rarer still.
Does the demise of a few bees matter very much? Actually, it does. Bees are at the bottom of the food chain for a start and are also elemental to pollination of crops that are eaten by humans. One third of all our food requires pollination by insects.
In western China, the problem has become so bad that hand pollination is the only way to ensure a reasonable crop from the pear trees. It would be catastrophic if we reached that position in Europe. Having said that, a recent survey by the University of Reading revealed that three countries in Europe have less than a quarter of the honeybees necessary for pollination. Those countries are Finland, Moldova and Great Britain. Shocking isn’t it? Most of Europe has between 25 and 50% of the estimated requirement, with only Portugal, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Greece and Turkey coming anywhere near the full requirement. The shortfall is made up by bumblebees and other insects, but if they are also decreasing in numbers then we should be aware.
Bees in the Spring
On a cheerier note, the winter may have been wet, but it was also warm and there are things in bloom that should know much better. Blackthorn normally appears, in this area, in mid-April, but not this year. At the end of the third week of February, a few trees had thrown caution to the wind revealing that snowy white blossom. Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is a member of the plum family and to beekeepers means the first crop of the year that produces both pollen and nectar in quantity. Once the blackthorn appears, we can relax, as it means our bees can now feed themselves once more. Most members of the plum family are a little more reticent and will appear later in March or April. Having just checked in our garden, I was surprised to see that the bees have completely by-passed the late snowdrops, but have taken to the euphorbia adjacent to it. I would have thought that the snowdrop would have been much more appetizing, but then, I am not a bee.
As the ground warms, those insects which have successfully over-wintered beneath it will be stirred into life and towards the end of the month, two of my favourite creatures will make their ways to the surface. These are two mining bee species – the Ashen Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria) and the Tawny Mining Bee (Andrena fulva). It is very easy to see where they got their names and the best place to see these two beauties is in your very own lawn. Because most lawns are free draining, the soil tends not to get waterlogged and so the eggs which will have turned into larvae and then pupated will hatch so that the next generation can help the honeybees in their task of pollinating our flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Ashen Mining Bee
The Ashen Mining Bee is the larger of the two at about 12-15mm in length and is easily distinguishable because of its black colour and furry fringe to its abdomen. It is this fringe that gives it its name; although at first glance it may appear grey, there is a pale cream tinge to it – in the right light.
On a warm, sunny day in late March, a grassy bank which has shortish grass and faces south or west can be alive with a mist of these friendly and totally non-aggressive insects, and although they may live in individual burrows, those burrows may number in the hundreds in any one bank. I have been called to a few ‘swarms’ that turned out to be Ashen Mining Bees. March is usually way too early for Honeybee swarms.
Tawny Mining Bee
The Tawny Mining Bee is seen in lesser numbers and is completely different. It is much smaller for a start, perhaps half the size of the Ashen Mining Bee. The colours though are a joy to behold, with that rich tawny thorax. These industrious little bees are also friendly and absolutely harmless and it is relatively easy to see if you are hosting them. Small holes about 5mm in diameter appear in your lawn, in the middle of a spoil heap that has been produced as they dig themselves out, or in. Don’t mistake these holes for ant diggings, they aren’t.
Just when you think everything is hunky dory, you may notice another bee popping in and out of the holes. If this bee is more yellow and black, with the appearance of a very small wasp, it may well be a Cuckoo Bee and just like its ornithological namesake it deposits eggs in its host’s nest, then goes on to lay another egg.
‘Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum’. That is half of a poem in a 'Budget of Paradoxes' attributed to De Morgan. If you would like to know more about the myriad species of bees, wasps and ants, the website for you is the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society, and isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds.