My usual daily commute to work involves walking hurriedly along a busy road that takes me past an old south-facing stone wall. For years I’ve dodged the furry bees that live in small holes along the wall but I’ve never taken the time to identify or to observe them. Last spring I happened to pass by the bees with a friend Scott Shanks, who is also an entomologist, who told me that they are chocolate mining bees (Andrena scotica).
In these unusual times of social distancing I am working from home and will often visit the chocolate mining bees during my short daily walk. I can feel slightly awkward if anyone sees me loitering by the wall for no apparent reason, but I enjoy briefly checking up on these industrious little bees that I usually rush past. When it has been cold and overcast they are often hidden, but occasionally a small furry face peers out of one of the holes in the wall. Like me, the bee seems to be waiting for the right time to resume its business.
Our most commonly known bees are either honeybees or cute fluffy bumblebees, of which there are 24 species. There are 10 times as many species of solitary bee in the United Kingdom (over 260 species), called such as they do not live sociably in a hive but tend to make their homes in cavities or by excavating small holes. My chocolate mining bees do just this! A bit like us (at the moment) they live singly but communally. This is why I tend to see quite a few flying about at the same site. The females are busy gathering pollen and nectar from plants and stash this in holes at the nest site where they will lay their eggs; the larvae have a readily available snack when they emerge.
Bees and other flying insects play an important role in pollinating plants, both in the wild, on farms and in our gardens, and for this reason we call them ‘pollinators’. Solitary bees are, in fact, much better at pollinating plants because they lack pollen sacks andare messier than the super-efficient honeybee and lose a lot more pollen as they go from flower to flower. Unfortunately pollinating insects are in decline, largely due to habitat loss. In the United Kingdom we have lost over 97% of our wildflower-rich meadows as a result of intensifying agriculture.
There are a lot of ways to encourage solitary bees and other pollinators to thrive in our gardens. As insects begin to emerge in spring, they rely on pollen and nectar from wildflowers such as dandelions. You can help, by leaving them to flower a bit longer in your lawn before you mow. If you are a keen gardener, you can add flowering plants and shrubs that bloom at different times of the year including early spring and autumn to provide food for our fuzzy friends. How about saving last years dried hollow plant stems to create a ‘hotel’ for solitary bees? I am trying to be a little less ‘tidy’ in my garden, and where I do weed an area I try and create somewhere else to let go a bit wild. I’m also well into #nomowmay right now. My front lawn is looking pretty lush and I’m going to keep it going beyond May and just give the edges a lil trim.
In the wider landscape, the East Ayrshire Coalfield Environment Initiative (my day job) plans to work with landowners and local communities over the next few years as part of the Coalfield Communities Landscape Partnership to create a network of wildflower-rich meadows. These will boost biodiversity in the Doon Valley and add a splash of colour and interest for people to enjoy. For now, I am using my time at home to plan the project and to get to know pollinators a little better so that I can share my knowledge with you when the time comes. Why not share a photo of wildlife in your garden to firstname.lastname@example.org?