You may have noticed over the last couple of weeks, especially over the remarkably warm weekend just gone, that there appear to be Bumblebees visiting our garden flowers. In an earlier post I had noted the early emergence of Bumblebee queens this year and although there may now be a small number of Buff-Tailed Bumblebee and even White-Tailed Bumblebee workers on the wing (these Queens usually being the earliest to emerge and therefore produce workers) it is still too early for them to be glaringly abundant. So, who’s been propping up the daisies then? Well, take a closer look and you might discover that these fury little friends are not Bumblebees, in fact, they might not even be Bees at all…
Digging around in the garden on Saturday afternoon, I noticed what I assumed was a Bee nectaring on the profusely flowering aubretia draped over the patio walls. As I moved closer to see if I could establish which Bee it was, it made off in haste. I noted the unusually frantic high-pitched buzz which did throw me a little, but when the ‘Bee’ returned a few minutes later, I noticed something else unusual too; the Bee never settled, it hovered above the flowers and used its long proboscis to drink the nectar. It was only when I got closer and the ‘Bee’ momentarily paused on some foliage that I notice the unusual shaped wings, from this the insect was easily identifiable as a Dark-edged Bee Fly, Bombylius major to be precise. Not a Bee at all! There are just a handful of Bee flies in Britain, but the Dark-edged is by far the most common, especially so early in the year.
When in flight the Bee fly can be difficult to identify, the wings beat so quickly that they are a mere blur to the eye. Their skittish and jerky flight is one tell-tale sign, scooting off as soon as you get within reach. The flight is quick and angular, far from the lazy bumbling gait so recognisable of most of our Bumblebees. As you can see from the above photo, when the Bee fly is motionless it is easily identifiable by the, as the name suggests, dark-edge wings. The extremely long proboscis is also a dead giveaway and this is easily observed in flight, as long as the fly doesn’t already have its face buried in a bloom. The Bee fly uses typical Bee-like mimicry as a defence mechanism, to ward off predators. Mimicry is where the similarities end though, as the Bee fly is completely harmless and has no sting. In fact, the cuddly Bee fly is more an enemy of the Bee than ours; The Bee fly lays its eggs at the entrance to Solitary Bee burrows, where, once hatched, it attacks the fully grown Bee larvae, feeding on its body fluids before eventually killing it. Of course, Bee’s and Bee Flies have lived side-by-side for millennia, and this rather gruesome relationship is part of a perfectly balance ecosystem.
Above is another early invader of the garden that many of us assume to be a Bumblebee. To the untrained eye, this little Bee (and it is a Bee) looks almost entirely as a Bumblebee should, except this Bee, the Hairy-footed Flower Bee, is actually a Solitary Bee.
The Hairy-footed Flower Bee can be found on the wing between February and June with its distribution mainly limited to the southern half of Britain. With such an early emergence, this minuscule Bee plays a huge role in pollination when there is very little else about on the wing; a real gardeners friend. Like the Bee fly, the Hairy-footed Flower Bee has a perceptibly long tongue and specialises in feeding from flowers with a long tubular corolla, Lungwort being a firm favourite.
Typical of most Solitary Bees, the Hairy footed likes to nest in soft mortar in house walls but can occasionally be found in underground burrows, preferring firm, dry clay. These Bees have been a regular visitor to my garden over the last three weeks or so and I’ve come to recognise their distinctly un-Bumblebee-like habits quite easily. They are a little easier to get close too compared to the Bee fly and if you get really close, you can quite clearly see the attribute that gives this charming creature its charming name; its feet are quite visibly hairy. Beside from that most obvious trait, there are other ways to distinguish this Bee from the Bumblebees. Much like the Bee fly, it has a much faster paced, darting flight than the Bumblebees and can often be seen approaching flowers with long tongue extended at the ready. Visibly, on closer inspection, they are fairly distinct from the brightly coloured and striped Bumblebees we often see nectaring on our garden plants; the male of this species is buff-ginger in tone and can only really be confused with the Common Carder Bumblebee in both size, shape and colour.
The female is a little more conspicuous and is markedly different from even her male counterpart; she is almost entirely black with no visible banding and only the faintest hint of ginger in the fine bristles on her back legs.
We all love to see Bumblebees in our gardens, their humming is an essential part of a British Summer and their enchanting two-and-throwing, awkward flight is one of the most endearing sights in the garden; we need to keep it that way, as year-on-year our gardens are becoming increasingly important for Bumblebees with intensive farming pretty much eradicating the wildflowers of our countryside that the Bees so love. For all our love and growing relationship with Bumblebees, they are still somewhat of an enigma. Some may be surprised to learn that there are 27 species of Bumblebee in the UK (there are over 250 species of Bee in the UK in total) and whilst it’s well worth learning how to identify the individual species, it can be a tricky business; the Queens are usually easily identifiable by their standard markings and patterns, workers meanwhile can vary greatly and are deceptively named (for instance, the White-Tailed Bumblebee and Garden Bumblebee both have White-tailed workers, more confusing still, the workers of the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee also have predominantly white tails!).
For now though, the Bee Fly and Hairy-footed Flower Bee can be easily observed and identified and whilst Bumblebees they are not, they still have a certain charm and an important part to play in our gardens and the wider ecology. Next time you are out and about and you hear a buzz, take a moment to have a closer look, you might surprise yourself!