Early Spring at NQ Growboxes

I think it’s safe to say that last year at NQ Growboxes was a tough one. The plants and wildlife were thriving, but against increasing opposition from the human species of Manchester. The boxes were installed in 2011 and so were showing their age. This seemed to prove irresistible to drunken people leaving the nearby bars and clubs, and it seemed that after every weekend the boxes were a little more destroyed. The boxes were literally being pulled apart. The manager of a nearby apartment block tried to patch them up as much as possible but it felt like a losing battle. It was so sad and dispiriting to see such a wonderful place in such a sad state.In early March though, the boxes were repaired and a lot of rotten wood replaced. And they looked smashing! The old wood was piled up at the edge of the site which allowed any inhabitants that had made their homes in the wood to escape.

Though I’ve made an effort to get to the boxes at least once a week over Winter, my beewatch began in earnest in March. It was still quite cold so not many insects around but my visits did not go unrewarded. There are plenty of birds around at this time of year, including a lovely Blackbird pair who nest somewhere nearby each year. As city dwellers they seem to be quite used to people, so will come quite close to you if you stay quiet and still (or if they are distracted by the tasty treats on offer in the boxes).

There was also a beautiful Dunnock who seemed on a personal mission to soundtrack my March visits with his Very Best Song.

Slowly, invertebrates started to arrive. I was pleased to see this beautiful gold Honeysuckle Sawfly return, I saw one for the first time here last year. Sawflies are a strange one, they are often described as Stingless Wasps but though they look a bit like wasps or flies, they are neither. Their name comes from the female’s ovipositer (egg-laying apparatus) which unfolds like a jacknife and is used to saw into a plant stem to create a space for her to lay her eggs.

The ladybirds started to emerge too, including this one with a really interesting pattern. Normally this would be a sign that the adult ladybird had freshly hatched, and it’s shell was hardening and pattern developing. But it seemed way too early in the year for this, so I’m not sure what had happened here!

Finally, my first bee arrived. A beautiful queen Bombus terrestris (Buff-Tailed Bumblebee). One of the first bee species to start nesting each year, I found her warming up on a leaf at the edge of the boxes.

Another queen arrived a couple of days later and I found her snoozing on the edge of one of the boxes. Her eyes were really beautiful, they seemed to be dark blue with black patches in them. I’m not sure if it was a mutation of some kind, there are some solitary bees that have patterned eyes like this but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a bumblebee.

Quickly following the bumblebees, the first solitary bees of the year arrived! These were Andrena or Mining Bees, part of the UK’s biggest bee genus with 68 species found here. These arrive at the boxes each year and must nest somewhere nearby – although I keep my eye out every year I haven’t yet discovered where. They like to nest in light soil so I think they may nest at the edge of the carpark or on the canalside somewhere.The males emerge earlier than the females and first to arrive was this male Andrena bicolor (Gwynne’s Mining Bee), a seriously tiny bee covered in black hair.

There was also a male Andrena haemorrhoa (Orange Tailed Mining Bee) who sports an excellent golden moustache.

The males were quickly followed by the females who I usually found sunbathing on the rhubarb on chillier days.

I also found a female Smeathman’s Furrow Bee, Lasioglossum smeathmanellum. These tiny metallic bees are one of the longest flying bees at NQ Growboxes – they can be around from April right through to the end of the season. This might not be that surprising though as the growboxes is their ideal habitat – they love brownfield sites with plenty of wildflowers and composites. It’s rarer in the North of England than the South though so it’s another species we are lucky to have.

April ended with the emergence of the apple blossom which brought with it the Mason Bees! The first male Red Mason Bees (Osmia bicornis) are attracted to apple blossom like a magnet, normally a rear end sticking out of a bloom is the best sighting you can hope for!

Also spotted were the first Blue Mason bee females, which is unusual. The males emerge first and so it’s unusual to see females this early. Like most bees they are often to be found warming up on the side of the boxes and the seat between boxes 5 and 6 is a popular sunbathing spot for a variety of bees.

All in all, a great start to the NQ Growboxes year!

Hiatus

Looking back, I can’t believe my last entry here was in February!  Since then, family health issues and general life stuff have kept me away from this blog.

Typically, there has been loads going on in the garden and my other patches and keeping an eye on everything has kept me going through the tougher times.  I’m going to try to catch up with everything over the next few weeks so expect some fairly random posting about things that happened back in Spring, even though we are now well into Summer!

I’m glad to be back.

Rainy Days and Communal Roosting at NQ Growboxes

I’ve mentioned before a particular nail hole in the fencing at the end of box number 9 at NQ Growboxes. It’s the one where I found the Blue Mason Bee hiding a couple of weeks ago. It’s very popular with bees – I’ve seen them using it as a roosting spot on days when it’s cold or rainy, and I’d guess that it’s used at night too.

This year though, I’ve noticed something curious. I’ve been frequently finding bees of different species occupying the hole quite happily together.

Common Yellow Face (Hylaeus communis) and Large Yellow Face (Hylaeus signatus) Bees sharing the nail hole

Communal roosting is a widely known phenomenon in the natural world, especially in birds. Roosting together provides safety in numbers – innate protection from predators, as well as increased warmth. It’s thought that there are social benefits too – with the younger members of the roost learning skills from the older more experienced members. The older members in turn benefit from being able to choose the prime spots in the middle of the roost.

Common Yellow Face and Hairy Yellow Face (Hylaeus hyalinatus) Bees sharing the nail hole

I don’t know whether anything like this is happening here, but if I had to venture a guess I’d say it was the warmth and shelter that’s pulling these bees in and encouraging them to share the space. They are definitely aware of each other and certainly don’t seem to mind each other’s company. I wonder if the fact they are both males has a bearing on this too – while they forage on similar food sources, they won’t be competing for nesting space and so maybe are more naturally tolerant of each other?

I also found another popular roosting spot in a crack in the top of the fence. On one dull day, I found three Hairy-Faced Yellow Face Bees (Hylaeus hyalinatus) piled in together having a snooze. For some reason, I still find it really comical that bees sleep on their backs. I can’t understand how their wings don’t get in the way!

On another day I found a single bee sheltering here during a rainstorm. If you look closely, you can see a raindrop on his eye!

I always used to dislike rainy, dull days. I rely mostly on natural light for my photography so on days like this it’s hard to get a good photo. However this year I’ve changed my mind somewhat – the bees stay much stiller in cooler conditions, and having worked out the places that they go to wait out the bad weather has made for some really interesting photo opportunities!

NQ Growboxes Round-Up – Late June & July 2018

Late June brought very warm temperatures and a distinct lack of rain. The wildflowers were starting to look a touch wilted, but still attracted loads of bees, like this Hylaeus (Yellow Faced Bee) who clearly takes her common name very literally.

The first Cinnabar Moths were flitting around the site. Soon, hopefully, we’ll see their bright yellow and black caterpillars feeding on the Ragwort around the site.

I found this fluorescent spider on one of the Ox-eye Daisies. It’s a Green Orb Weaver, and is a common UK species though this is the first one I’ve seen. Despite it’s vivid colour, it camouflages against vegetation incredibly well, I almost missed it completely as I scanned over the flower heads to check for bees.

On one dull day when I was sure there was nothing to be found, I saw a ladybird hatching! This is the first time I’ve seen this, and I was surprised to see this bright yellow, plain looking ladybird emerging. Reading up later, I discovered that all ladybirds hatch out with yellow wing casings and without their spots, which develop slowly and patchily over the next few hours, along with their final colour.

Later that week I found another ladybird going through this process.

I’ve been seeing plenty of birds at the Growboxes this year. This female Blackbird is around a lot, collecting worms for her chicks.

This poor Blue Tit looks KNACKERED.

I’m also pleased to be seeing more and more House Sparrows around the boxes this year, taking advantage of the rich pickings available.

As July began the scorching temperatures and distinct lack of rain continued. At NQ Growboxes, as with everywhere else, this meant a distinct lack of forage to be found. The wildflowers at the edge of the site have been particularly hard hit. I’m not sure whether t’s the lack of forage or a combination of different factors but, as in my own garden, this seems to be bringing the bee season to an early end this year. Compared to the same time last year there are far fewer bees around – last July the bee season was still in full swing, not so this year.

The upside to this is that you are pretty much guaranteed to see something interesting if you head to one of the flowers that IS still in bloom. I found this Leafcutter bee visiting each Borage flower in turn – Borage is a fantastic bee plant as it refills with nectar incredibly quickly after a pollinator visits it, and it was one of the most popular bee plants on the site in early July.

There were a few Ox-Eye Daisies and Asteracae left – these are normally occupied by female Colletes (Plasterer Bees) gathering pollen with which to provision their nest cells or just using them as a place to warm up on a dull day!

These bees are very common at the Growboxes at this time of year, so much so that I think their nesting site must be somewhere in the near vicinity. They are ground nesters and aren’t nesting in the boxes themselves, so I suspect they may be nesting somewhere in the adjacent car park. I must have a walk round one day to see if I can find them!

One insect that seems to be doing incredibly well in the heat is the butterfly. Large and Small Whites, Commas and Red Admirals are a common sight flitting around the boxes at the moment, usually in groups of several at a time. I was thrilled to find a species I’ve never seen before nectaring on one of the lavender bushes – a Large Skipper. The name is deceptive though – it’s a really tiny creature, so much so that I thought it was a moth at first. It was such a beautiful, iridescent shad of golden orange – it glittered in the sun. It was a rare butterfly too, in that it was happy for me to get right up close with the camera and just continued nonchalantly feeding.

My favourite Hylaeus (Yellow Faced) bees have all but gone now. There are just a few females to be found busily gathering provisions but nothing like the numbers there were a few weeks ago.

A new arrival though is this Blue Lasioglossum (Furrow) bee. These arrived late on in the season last year and may be another sign that the bee year has been accelerated somehow and is coming to an end.

I found this distinctive looking Shield Bug hiding in the lavender. Shield Bugs are a common sight in gardens, where they can be easily recognised by the distinctive shape that gives them their name. They are apparently also known as Stink Bugs because they emit a foul odour when they feel threatened – a theory I have not personally tested! Most of the Shield Bugs I see are in shades of green and brown, but this one was mainly pinky-purple with almost a checkerboard pattern of black and white round the site. This is the Hairy Shield Bug, Dolycoris baccarum, which is mainly found in the South of the country but is spreading Northwards as temperatures rise. There are only a handful of records for this species around Manchester so it’s another great find for NQ Growboxes!

As you pass through the Growboxes at the moment, you find your movements tracked by a strange, buzz-like ‘song’ coming from the sides of the boxes or the ground by your feet. You may see a small something spring across the path in front of you, or at the side out of the corner of your eye. These will be the Grasshoppers, who are all around the boxes at the moment. They seem to like to sit on the edge of the boxes sometimes, watching the world go by, and are fascinating when viewed up close. Pictured is the Common Field Grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus on box 9.

So another month comes to a close. It’s been a very strange year for wildlife, and the bee season especially seeming to be coming to a premature end when it would normally still be in full swing. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the year unfolds.

Blue Mason Bee

The remaining Blue Mason bee at NQ Growboxes is spending most of his time tucked up in the nail hole in the fencing at the end of box 9, just coming out occasionally to forage. He’s looking tired now – he’s lived a long time for a bee.

He was close to the front of the hole one day last week, so I was able to spend some time photographing him. As I did, the sun came out and hit the fence and clearly warmed him up enough for him to emerge.

These are some of the favourite pictures I’ve taken so far this year I think. I spent so much time stalking this little guy earlier on in the Summer and I’m really quite fond of him.

The Cuckoo (Bees) have arrived!

With the bee season in full swing now and the continuing hot weather, not only are there tons of bees around but also loads of other species that depend on the bees to survive!

I found my first Cuckoo Bumblebee at NQ Growboxes in early June. They’ve almost certainly been there before but it’s only as I grow a bit more confident in my identification skills that I’ve been able to pick them apart from other bumblebees.

Cuckoo Bumblebees pretty much work as the name suggests. The female sneaks into an established Bumblebee nest where she seeks out and kills the queen. She then lays her own eggs in the nest which are brought up by the existing host species workers. These eggs develop into new Cuckoo Queens and males only, no workers are produced. Cuckoo Bumblebees always mimic their host species in appearance, all the better for sneaking into nests undetected. They are generally slightly larger than bumblebees, are less hairy and don’t have pollen baskets. They also have quite round faces and dark wings.

The bee I found at the growboxes was a male Bombus sylvestris, the Forest Cuckoo Bee.

The host species of this bee are Bombus pratorum (Early Bumblebee), Bombus jonellus (Heath Bumblebee) and Bombus monticola (Mountain bumblebee).

A couple of weeks later I spotted a Vestal Cuckoo Bee (Bombus vestalis). Again a male, his species are hosted by Bombus terrestris (Buff Tailed Bumblebee).

He looks quite similar in appearance to Bombus sylvestris, but has a much larger, brighter patch of yellow on his tail which doesn’t have a red tip.

With Leafcutter Bees a common sight at the growboxes at the moment, as are their cuckoo bee Coelixys – the Sharp Tailed Bee.

This female was nice enough to pose on the end of a fence post for me which clearly shows the sharp point to her tail from which she gets her name. This is designed to cut through the leaf cells in which Leafcutter Bees lay their eggs, to allow her to lay her own egg within the cell. When her eggs hatch, they kill the Leafcutter larva, eat the pollen load that has been left for it and develop undisturbed, eventually hatching out at the same time as the Leafcutter Bees the next summer.

While cuckoo bees can be viewed negatively due to the fact that they predate their host species, I’m always interested to see them. They are still vastly outweighed in numbers by their host species, so much so that to see them is quite a novelty. All species of bee (except honeybees, interestingly) have one or several cuckoo species, and they are all playing a part in a healthy, functioning eco-system – they’ll never outnumber their hosts, as this would effectively kill off their own species.

Hylaeus Bees at NQ Growboxes – and biodiversity in the City

Hylaeus bees -often known as ‘Yellow-Faced’ or ‘Masked’ bees due to their extensive facial markings – are the first unusual bees that I noticed at NQ Growboxes.

I’d been having an absolute pig of a day at work and missed the gym class I was booked on over lunchtime. So when I could finally escape the office – and in a thoroughly foul mood – I went for a wander and found myself at the growboxes. Where there seemed to be clouds of midgies swarming around some of the plants. Looking closer, the midgies appeared to have white and yellow faces. Surely not – but slowly I realised what I was seeing. Tiny bees. Hylaeus.

My bad mood instantly evaporated – I’d seen the odd female Hylaeus in our garden but I’d always wanted to see males with their extravagant masks, and here they were. I was back at the growboxes with my camera less than 12 hours later, and the rest is history – I’ve been stalking the bees and other wildlife there ever since.

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Hylaeus are some seriously small bees. The largest has a wingspan of only 6mm, hence why they often look like clouds of tiny flies – especially as they have a habit of swarming around plants. They are predominantly black and white or black and yellow and are quite wasp-like in appearance. They nest in holes, either in the ground or in wood or stone structures. Worldwide they are a family of about 500 species (12 of which are found here in the UK) – and they are the only bee native to Hawaii where one species nests within the tiny holes found in coral.

I’ve got a real soft spot for these little bees, maybe because they are so tiny and easily overlooked.

The first Hylaeus to arrive this year was the Hairy-Faced Yellow Faced bee, Hyleaus hylinatus. Why is it called this you ask?

There are large numbers of these around this year, and like the other Hylaeus found at the growboxes they seem to love the Ox-Eye daisies found around the edges of the site and in the carpark beyond. They also seem partial to sunbathing on leaves in the sunnier spots, and can be told apart from the other species that are around by their orange antennae.

Hylaeus hyalinatus male
Hylaeus hyalinatus female

The second Hylaeus to arrive this year was the Large Yellow-Faced bee, Hylaeus signatus. This species prefers to feed on Weld and Mignonette, both of which seem to pop up around the growboxes. This one is quite a special bee, it’s recognised as a Nationally Scarce species so it’s great to see it doing so well at the Growboxes.

Hylaeus signatus males

Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising. 15% of all records of Nationally Scarce species come from Brownfield sites, and there’s a logical reason for this.

The term ‘Brownfield’ often holds negative connotations, conjuring up visions of some kind of post-industrial wasteland ripe for redevelopment (especially when the alternative is building on Greenbelt land). But you only need to look at the growboxes and adjoining car park to see how fantastic sited like these can be for nature.

The land itself has been disturbed, leaving soft ground exposed which is perfect for the germination of wildflower seeds, the resulting plants becoming forage and shelter for insects.

The ground is often on different levels, creating sunny banks ideal for ground-nesting bees and other invertebrates. Where buildings have been demolished, parts of walls and the building structure often still remain – with mortar crumbling and full of nooks and crannies which form a desirable city-centre abode for insects and small mammals.

Wooden structures and fencing – as found at NQ Growboxes – contain old nail holes which are the perfect home for Leafcutter Bees.

The canal close by once brought barges into Industrial-Revolution era Manchester but is now a highway and home for Dragonflies and Damselflies who stop off at the Growboxes to hunt and to roost.

The centre of Manchester, in common with most city centres, tends to be a few degrees warmer than the surrounding areas. Bare ground on a Brownfield site like the car park next to the growboxes traps the heat and creates a warm microclimate – this few degrees of extra warmth can mean the difference between surviving and thriving for the resident insect populations.

As I was writing this post, another Yellow-Faced bee arrived at the growboxes – Hylaeus communis, the Common Yellow-Faced bee. Despite the name, I only saw this bee once last year so I was really hoping to see it again.

This is a particularly tiny bee, even compared with the other Hylaeus, so it’s incredibly difficult to photograph. Luckily I spotted it on a grey and overcast day when bees tend to sit stiller than normal, so managed to get a few good shots.

This one is fairly easy to tell apart from the other growbox species as long as you can get close enough for a good look. It’s facial markings are much yellower and curl up and around the antennae.

So this year I’ve now seen all 3 species of Hylaeus that I spotted last year. There are still more that could be present, so I’ll be keeping a keen look out.