Early spring bees

If you’re new to bee spotting, now is the month when you can really begin. If you’ve been waiting all winter to get back to bee spotting, now’s the month to resume on dry, sunny days.

In March you could see three species of bumblebee:

  • The Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) queen is smaller (14mm) and prettier with her fluffy yellow collar and orangey bottom.
  • The Common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) The queen bumblebees are collecting (cardering) bits of moss to line their nest which they make above ground in undisturbed areas at the bottom of gardens. They also need nectar to fuel their flight after a long period of hibernation. Their long tongue, means you are likely to see them foraging on dead-nettles at this time of year.

(You will also likely see big Buff-tailed bumblebees as they are our most common bee with their golden stripes and whitish tails)

Six solitary bee species:

  • Hairy-footed flower bees (Anthophora plumipes) are often mistaken for bumblebees because of their round, fluffy appearance, but they live alone (not in colonies). The brown, male Hairy-footed flower bees emerged a few weeks ago in some warmer parts of the country and bigger blacker females have also recently been spotted. But most of us will have to wait a bit longer to see both of them. They visit Pulmonaria (lungwort) and other flowers with bell-shaped flowers. The males suck up the nectar with their long, straw-like tongues (proboscis) to build up their energy for mating when the females appear. A male will often jealously guard a patch of flowers where he hopes to get lucky, and chase off other potential suitors. More than one male can often be seen in pursuit of a female.
  • Buffish mining bee (Adrena nigroaenea) is one of our most common garden mining bees widespread across England. Around the size of a honeybee but a bit stockier, this 10-11mm-long bee has a dense fluffy brown pile on the top of its thorax. It can be tricky to identify from other brown bees. It nests in footpaths, flowerbeds and lawns. Although solitary, these bees nest next door to each other in large groups. Like all solitary bees, the male appear a couple of weeks before the females.
  • Male Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) can emerge towards the end of the month to feed on blossoming fruit trees and shrubs. (But if it’s unseasonably warm and the trees flower early females too will appear.) If you have a bee hotel you may see these cavity nesting bees checking out of the mud-plugged tubes. They eat their way out. And the male eggs are laid at the front of the tubes making it easier for them to emerge easier than the females. They are a little smaller (6 – 8mm) than a honey bee (9-10mm), more gingery and have a rounder bottom.
  • Male Orange-tailed mining bees (Andrena haemorrhoa) are a little smaller (8-11mm) and less robust than Buffish mining bees. The smaller males have buff on their face and a brown pile on the thorax and at tip of their tail. Their name derives from the larger females (which may not be out until April) which have an orange-tipped tail. They took up residence one summer in our Bee Observation Box, which I will put up next month.
  • Gwynne’s mining bee (Andrena bicolor) is a bit harder to spot, being 7-11mm, but look down and you may see them burrowing through soil on south-facing banks. Although solitary, they nest next door to each other underground in aggregations, so hundreds could emerge at the same time. But don’t worry, solitary bees don’t sting! The female has a reddish-brown pile on the top of her thorax and hairy pollen brushes on her back legs. The males are much blacker and shinier. They seem to eat most spring flowers and as such are seen throughout England and Wales.
  • Common mini-miner (Andrena minutula). If you see a tiny mining bee (4-5mm) at this time of year, chances are it will be this mini-miner bee because as its name suggests it’s the most common of the 10 species of mini-miners in the UK. They have hair fringe along the thorax and marking on their head if you can get that close. They are most visible on dandelion type flowers and sallow (willows). They nest in loose soil in large groups.

Bee mimic of the month:

Many people confuse the Dark-edged bee-fly (Bombylius major) for a bee (which is why we’ve included it). Not surprising there is confusion, because it’s a great mimic – round and fluffy like a small bumblebee (14mm long). It’s very visible in the spring, hovering around green alkanet and wallflowers. The easiest way to tell it apart from a bee is its long, spindly legs, hovering action, and two wings (bees have four wings) which stick out at a 45c angle, and relatively big eyes.

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) workers (14mm) leave the hive when its 13c. Shaped like a wasp, they have black and amber stripes. Look up and you will see them high up on fruit trees, pussy willows and hazel and alder collecting nectar and pollen to take home to feed their queen and thousands of hungry larvae that will develop into workers and drones. (We’ve not included them in our Bees to See in March guide above as we wish to raise awareness about solitary bees and bumblebees).

How to help bees this month:

Gardening for bumblebees:

  1. Leave a patch of the garden wild for nesting sites and don’t disturb a nesting site if you find one in a compost bin, under a shed, or even in a watering can (it will only last until the end of the summer).
  2. Put up a box for blue tits. After the chicks have fledged, the box may be inhabited by Tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum). The colony will vacant at the end of summer, so the blue tits can use it again next spring.
  3. Plant primroses, Forget- me-nots, Rosemary and heathers to provide food this month for short-tongued bumblebees.
  4. Longer-tongued bumblebees like Common carder bees prefer dead-nettles and wallflowers.
  5. Leave ‘weeds’ like dandelions and alkanet to grow. They provide much-needed pollen and nectar in early spring. And you’ll see lots of different bees coming to feed on a clump of alkanet.
  6. Sow seeds inside now to create more flowers later in the summer. Sweet peas, sunflowers, cosmos and Anise hyssop are some of the easiest to grow in pots. Try growing on a heated mat until the seeds germinate. I’m also going to try Chives, Viper’s bugloss and cornflowers outside next month.
  7. Instead of seeds, you can buy bee-friendly plug plants that are quicker to establish. My favourites are stocked by Rosybee.
  8. Don’t mow the lawn to let clovers flower.
  9. Ditch the weed killers, like Round-up, and any pesticides and bug sprays you may be using on your roses, or any other plants.

Gardening for solitary bees:

  1. Plant lungwort, wallflowers, dead-nettles, early-flowering comfrey and flowering currants (Ribes) for long-tongued Hairy footed flower bees. Red mason bees and mining bees, with shorter tongues prefer flowering fruit trees, willows, spurges, alkanet and forget-me-nots.
  2. Leave old mortar untouched as Hairy-footed flower bees may be nesting here.
  3. Make cob bricks with holes in that Hairy-footed flower bees could nest in instead.
  4. When the weather is dry and warming up a bit, I install bee-hotels in a warm location at least a metre off the ground, where Red mason bees (Osmia bicornis) can check-in and lay their eggs. We’ve designed our own wooden bee hotels which we stuff with cardboard tubes.
  5. Leave a patch of bare earth for mining bees to burrow and nest, and where Red mason bees can collect soil to plug their nests.
  6. If you see bees coming up through your lawn, just leave them. They are a harmless mining bees emerging in spring to pollinate your garden flora.
  7. Don’t mow the lawn to let the mining bees emerge and to nest, and to let dandelions flower.
  8. Ditch the weed killers, like Round-up, and any pesticides and bug sprays you may be using on your roses, or any other plants. Leafcutter bees depend on the leaves of rose bushes to construct their nests.

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