The Forgotten Bees

Hi Everybody, I’m travelling tomorrow, so here’s my weekly blogpost a little early….BugWoman.

A male Spring Flower Bee on Bowle's Mauve perennial wallflower

A male Spring Flower Bee on Bowle’s Mauve perennial wallflower – my only photo!

Spring is a lovely time for pollinator-watching. For the last few mornings I’ve taken my breakfast smoothie out to my south-facing front garden to see what creatures are about. Sometimes, I optimistically take my camera, although not all flying insects are as laid-back and cooperative as the bumblebee queens who drone slowly from one wallflower blossom to another.

The first thing that I noticed this morning was that there were bees flying around with their tongues sticking out.From the side they looked like little horseback knights, determined to skewer every flower with their lance. One bee was a frosty grey, with a white face.

A decent shot of a male Spring Flower bee, By Pancrat (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A decent shot of a male Spring Flower bee, By Pancrat (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I lurched from one terracotta pot to another trying to get a good shot of him, but he was a nervous bee, darting from one blossom to another. I recognised him as a Spring (or Hairy-Footed) Flower Bee, which although European in origin was introduced to the US in the twentieth century, and is one of the few bee species that we share. This bee doesn’t make a nest or hive, but is one of the many species of solitary bees – the females do all the hard work, excavating a tunnel in clay soil, filling it with a pollen and nectar ball, and then laying a single egg on each mass. The male only needs to feed himself and find females to mate with. I got one mediocre shot of him (as you can see at the beginning of the post), and settled down to wait to see if a female would turn up.

In many bees there are differences between the male and the female. Few bee sexes are so completely different as the Spring Flower Bee, however. As I set on the doorstep, camera in hand, greeting the neighbours with a cheery wave as they sidled past with some alarm, I suddenly saw a female appear.

Female Spring Flower Bee - note the extended tongue!

Female Spring Flower Bee – note the extended tongue!

Female Spring Flower Bees are jet black. They also often fly with their tongues out, but other than this I’m sure you would not know that they were the same species as the males. My bee did a couple of high loops over the wallflowers and grape hyacinth, and then she did something that I always find a little unnerving. She hovered in front of me, and I had a sense that she was trying to work out what I was.It’s hard enough for us to imagine what it would be like to see through those compound eyes, without thinking our way into the brain behind them. Yet, I had a sense of being appraised for threat value. It was as if she was scanning me. What could she detect? Bees can see into the ultra-violet part of the spectrum where we can’t go. Could she sense the heat of my body? She could certainly pick up movement – when I reached slowly for my camera, she wheeled away, then came back for a further look, hovering at head height. We looked at one another in mutual incomprehension, two creatures that share the majority of our DNA and yet are utterly other to one another. Then, with a flick, she was gone.

Later, in the back garden, I saw other female Spring Flower Bees. They all had this characteristic pattern of hovering, appraising, flying away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a manoeuvrable and speedy bee. In the end, I lay my camera down and just watched them as they went about their business, the orange of the pollen in the baskets on their legs contrasting with their midnight fur.

Fabulous photo of female Spring Flower Bee in flight, thanks to By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fabulous photo of female Spring Flower Bee in flight, thanks to By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the front garden, I noticed another little bee that often goes unremarked. This species is about the size of a honey bee, but has a foxy-red thorax.  This is an Early Mining Bee, and in my part of London it’s very common. I watched it feeding and remembered the time when I first noticed them.

Early Mining Bee - By Sandy Rae (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Early Mining Bee – By Sandy Rae (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

When we first dug our pond, there was a big area of loose soil at one end, which we were waiting to plant. One day, I noticed that there was a lot of activity there, lots of little flying insects coming and going. I crouched closer for a look, and saw that there were thirty or forty little bees digging their way into the earth. Off I ran for my guide to Garden Wildlife, and sure enough, these were Early Mining Bees. I had never seen one before in my life but here they were. Each bee digs a tunnel and then lays a single egg in it, sealing the entrance with mud and flying away.

Early Mining Bee in her nest tunnel - thanks to Simon Connolly of A lovely blog, well worth a vist...

Early Mining Bee in her nest tunnel – thanks to Samuel Connolly of A lovely blog, well worth a visit…

As the days went by, more and more bees arrived. At one point, I counted seventy before my head was so full that I couldn’t count any more. They had recognised a suitable habitat and were taking advantage of it. It was serendipity at its best – I hadn’t planned to make a decent bee habitat in this way, but it turned out that it was one. I would sit on the steps and watch the bees coming and going.

All this activity did not go unnoticed. As I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen one day, I saw a magpie land with a great flurry of wings and cackling. It hopped over to where the bees were hard at work, and turned its head this way and that. It flicked its wings once or twice, then jumped into the air and caught an unfortunate bee. The magpie had obviously caught bees before, as it smashed the insect on the step once or twice to loosen the sting. Then, it gulped the bee down, considered for a moment and flew away. Obviously, it didn’t make for good eating, and the rest of the bees were allowed to complete their work in peace.

Things are so transitory. In less than a week, the bees had done their work and disappeared. What followed was the wettest spring for years. The level of the pond rose, and many of the bee nests would have been inundated. The plants grew until the little patch of soil was no longer bare. But this morning, with the sight of the Early Mining Bee in the front garden, I wondered if maybe a few of the eggs had survived.

We are sometimes so anxious about honey bees that we forget about our many, many native pollinators, the unnoticed army of solitary bees and hoverflies and bumblebees that perform a variety of ministrations for our crops and garden plants. Each one has its own lifecycle, its own unique behaviour. All it takes is a few bee-friendly flowers, or a patch of open ground to attract not just the usual insects, but the unusual ones as well.


10 thoughts on “The Forgotten Bees

  1. Pen Thompson

    Thank you again for such a well observed,written, photo-illustrated and educative blog. I’m sitting with my morning cuppa in the outskirts of Queensland at my stepson’s family home and this little read has been a brilliant way of transporting me….enjoy your Easter. Pen

  2. Bug Woman

    Thank you! And isn’t it wonderful that I can post a piece here in Toronto, and you can read it in Queensland. So glad that you enjoyed it….

  3. Julia

    Really lovely, have had that bee scan thing myself, fascinating. There are bumblebees, or maybe it’s just the same one? not sure which type, coming and going from earth near my shed, will be planting plenty of suitable flowers this Spring.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Julia, how interesting about the bees near your shed – bumblebees do nest on the ground, often in disused mouse burrows and such. It would be great to hear how things develop!

  4. pdcrumbaker

    Informative and interesting, as usual. The photographs and video are great additions to the blog.

  5. Classof65

    Here in Tennessee we have carpenter bees that are huge! Unfortunately they have the bad habit of boring tunnels into wood to lay their eggs. So far we have done nothing to harm them, so they are merrily making holes in all our fence posts. They, too, have the habit of hovering right in front of your face, checking you out, deciding if you are friend or foe.

    1. Bug Woman

      Oh, I think I’ve seen pictures of your fabulous carpenter bees – the one I saw looked more like a teddy-bear than an insect! We have mason bees that drill holes into crumbling mortar on old walls, but they are tiny in comparison. This morning I watched a male spring flower bee trying to ambush females who were coming to feed on the wallflowers – he didn’t give up, even though he must have been rebuffed a dozen times. Bees are endlessly fascinating..

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