NQ Growboxes – late April to Mid May round-up

As Spring has finally arrived and the weather has warmed up, NQ Growboxes has come to life.

The Spring flowers attracted an early solitary bee species, Gwynne’s Mining Bee (Andrena bicolor).

This tiny bee collects pollen on her hind legs, making it appear that she is wearing pollen pants. These bees nest in soft ground, so I think the nearby car park and canalside are ideal.

While watching this tiny bee, I saw a flash of gold out of the corner of my eye. It was a large insect, but unlike anything I’d seen before. Not wanting to spook it, I followed at a safe distance distance while it flew round the boxes, until finally it settled on a sage plant at the border of the site.

Close up, it was absolutely stunning – it’s gold body glittered and sparkled in the sunlight. It sat sunbathing on the sage and soaking up the heat for a while, then flew away.

Later I discovered that it was a Honeysuckle Sawfly (Zaraea lonicerae). These insects are stingless wasps which feed primarily on nectar. I’ve seen Sawflies before, but never one this big or this round – at my initial glance out of the corner of my eye I’d been convinced it was some kind of bee.

On May 1st instead of a white rabbit I got a Red Mason Bee. Or several, in fact. I saw several males patrolling the boxes – male solitary bees tend to hatch out first and then spend their time waiting for the females of the species to emerge. Every so often, one would drop to the side of one of the boxes for a rest and to draw warmth from the wood.

Mason bees are aerial nesters that like to live in holes in wood, which is why they are a common visitor to garden bee hotels. At NQ growboxes I think they must be living in holes in the structure of the boxes themselves, as well as the wooden fencing.

The same week saw the arrival of tiny, metallic Lasioglossum or Furrow bees.

There are 4 metallic species of these that look so similar they can only be distinguished from each other using a microscope. I think several are resident at the growboxes, as they were the last bee I saw flying last year in September/October and no single species is active for this much of the year.

Mid May has seen the emergence of one of my favourites – the Blue Mason Bee. The males of these are a glittering gold colour and have stunning large eyes in various shades of blue. They are a remarkable looking bee, which didn’t arrive in my garden last year so I was particularly pleased to see these!

The drawback – these are seriously tiny bees and very flighty. If those big blue eyes see the slightest hint of movement they are gone, meaning it’s difficult to get a good close up shot of one.

One thing I have noticed about their behaviour is that once they’ve chosen a spot to land on, they return to it again and again. I decided to spend one lunchtime exclusively staking out boxes 5 and 6 where this little beauty kept landing.

Unfortunately there’s no controlling which direction they are facing when they land so I have a lot of shots like this –

But eventually my patience (and the severe cramp) was rewarded!

There seem to be 2 or 3 of these patrolling the boxes at the moment, so I will continue stalking them for the next few weeks.

The first bumblebees are starting to arrive. This beautiful Red Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) worker visited what looked like every single flower in box 10.

By the time she’d finished she was boasting the fullest pollen baskets that I’ve ever seen.

There was also an unusual visitor to one of the boxes, a larger species than I normally photograph and my first ever mammal sighting at the growboxes.

Apparently field mice are particularly partial to Brassicae flowers, who knew?

My City Patch

I’ve just realised that I’ve never written here about my other patch that I visit at least once a week. This one isn’t where you might expect – it’s in the very centre of Manchester, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Station.

On the edge of some wasteland used as a car park sits NQ Growboxes, a small allotment project for city residents who want some space to grow.

I’m lucky enough to have this amazing space 5 minutes walk away from my office, and discovered it one day when out walking at lunchtime during late may last year on a day when I was thoroughly cheesed off and just needed some space.

It was the dragonflies and damselflies I first noticed. Being so close to the canal they use the growboxes as a roosting point and hunting ground. Then as I examined the flowers more closely I realised they were absolutely covered in bees. Very unusual bees in fact, tiny Hylaeus or Masked Bees. I’d only ever seen these a couple of times before and never managed to gain a decent photo. I knew I had to return with my camera.

Of course I discovered the site on a Friday, but I couldn’t wait to return. On my way to our apiary in Salford the next day I took a small detour and toured the growboxes with my camera for an hour.

I was chuffed to manage my first half decent photo of a Masked Bee. They are seriously tiny – the larger species are 5-6mm long and they are very, very fast.

I was also thrilled to see my first (and to date only) Sharp Tailed Bee, a klepto-parasite of Leafcutter Bees.

From then I’ve visited the boxes at least once a week. I learned that the most numerous Hylaeus bee on the site is Hylaeus signatus, the Large Yellow Faced Bee, which is nationally scarce and so a special thing to find.

I was able to spend a lot of time with this lovely little bee over the Summer, and eventually got some great photos. I have to say that chasing them around has greatly improved my photography and fieldwork skills!

I was also pleased to find a male Wool Carder Bee in a lavender bush one day. Again, this is still my only sighting!

By the end of the Summer I’d counted at least 15 bee species there. Some can’t be identified to species, for example these beautiful metallic Lasioglossum (Furrow) Bees.

There are 4 species that look almost identical and they can only be identified properly via microscope, but as they were the first species I’ve seen in April this year and the last I saw well into September last year I’m pretty sure they are different species. No single species of bee has that long a flight time.

NQ Growboxes bees 2017 –

I’m looking forward to seeing what I can find at the site this year. I’ve seen the first bees arrive there this week and as it’s earlier in the season I’m confident the species count will be higher this year.

It’s not just all about the bees and dragonflies either. The boxes are home to butterflies, wasps and numerous other insects, while birds swoop overhead. I’ve never visited the site during the evening but I’d be amazed if there weren’t bats.

Even after the bee season had finished, I’ve still visited the growboxes each week to see what’s going on – often accompanied by the resident Wren.

I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful spot so close to me. I love being able to access nature in the heart of the city and during the long working week. It’s also a brilliant hotspot for wildlife and shows the value of brownfield sites for nature. We must treasure places like this.