Dear Readers, when I first moved into my house in East Finchley in 2010, I was at a loss to know what to do with the darkest part of the side return, the gap between the kitchen and the house next door. I wondered if anything would ever be happy there. Fortunately, someone suggested hydrangea petiolaris, the climbing hydrangea, and after 8 years it has reached the roof. This year, it was smothered in its strange, lace-cap flowers, and every time I stepped outside on my way to top up the bird feeders, it made me smile.
I didn’t, however, think that it was a very good plant for wildlife. My highest hopes were that it might provide a thick and leafy haven for birds’ nests at some point. But then, I noticed that, although there were only a tiny number of white flowers with petals on each flowerhead (known as a corymb), there were masses of tiny flowerets, which seemed to be composed entirely of stamen. I learned that the white flowers are sterile, but the unassuming smaller ‘blooms’ are not, and are in fact a rich source of pollen.
And so I started to notice that various pollinators were visiting the hydrangea. Bumblebees and honeybees collected the pollen, and small hoverflies seemed to be patrolling territories above the flowers. However, my happiest realisation was that I had a new visitor, or at least one who was new to me. The black and grey bee in the first photo is an ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria), and she is busily collecting pollen.
How do I know that this is a female? The shiny black abdomen and grey and black-striped thorax are very distinctive. The males are smaller, and have white tufts of hair sticking out of the side of their thoraxes, rather like muttonchop whiskers (though in the wrong place). These are small bees, about two-thirds of the size of a honeybee. Their Latin name ‘cineraria’ means ‘pertaining to ashes’, a reference to their colour – incidentally the plant cineraria was probably named because of its grey furry stems.
Although ashy mining bees are solitary in the sense that they don’t form colonies like honeybees or bumblebees, they do like to nest together. They build long nesting tunnels, usually on sunny south-facing slopes, and sometimes a favoured site can be peppered with hundreds of individual nests, the bees coming and going with a frequency that reminds me of Heathrow airport. The bees seem to prefer bare soil, but will sometimes nest in lawns, leaving little ‘volcanoes’ of soil. They block the tunnels when they’ve finished foraging, or if it looks like rain. If disturbed they will rush to blockade their nest entrances – these are not aggressive creatures, and I have never heard of anyone being stung by one.
As is often the way, I noticed the bees last weekend, and by mid-week the hydrangea had gone over, and the bees had disappeared. Much like the hairy-footed flower bees that are around on warm days in April, ashy mining bees have a short, single flight period, and will all be gone by the end of June. The females spend their time busily gathering nectar and pollen to feed the larvae who have hatched in the brood chambers at the end of those tunnels. Once they have fed enough, the larvae will pupate for the rest of the year, ready to emerge in spring – the males pop out before the females so that they’re ready for them when they come out (much as the male frogs emerge in my pond a few days before the females turn up). The male bees hover around the nest site in a behaviour known as ‘lekking’, a term that I associate more with black grouse than insects.
Ashy mining bees are not at all particular about what plants they use for pollen, and are very important for the pollination of oil-seed rape in some areas of the country (an indication that honeybees are not the only important pollinators). They go about their work largely unnoticed, appearing for a few weeks every year and then disappearing. I shall certainly watch for them next year, and will keep my eyes open for whatever species comes next. There is a dance in the gentle succession of species that emerge, or bloom, or die-back every month, and getting to know these patterns has been one of the most wonderful things about writing this blog. It gives me a sense of belonging and groundedness that is most reassuring when so many other things are in flux.
In her wonderful book ‘The Enchanted Life’, Sharon Blackie refers to the importance of having a ‘Sit Spot’ – somewhere that you sit every day, whatever the weather, and just observe. I know that plonking down on my kitchen step and paying attention to the hydrangea and to the plants has given me a real sense of the turn of the seasons and of how plants and animals and humans interrelate. It has given me peace when serenity was in short supply. It reminds me that life goes on, literally right outside my back door. And it is cool, and green, in the way that a forest is cool and green. It has become a sanctuary, thanks to this plant that doesn’t mind the shade, and flowers with such generosity. It reminds me how lucky I am.
I recommend ‘The Enchanted Life’ for anyone who would like to foster a deeper connection with the area in which they live, and who yearns for a sense of belonging. You can find out more about it (and purchase it directly from the author) here