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!

Badger Watching

Stumbling across an uneven, tussocky field after dark, clutching my camera and a bean bag leaving no spare hands for a torch is not my usual way to spend a Wednesday evening, but this was not a normal Wednesday. I’d finally seen an animal that I’d wanted to for the longest time – the badger.

I’d only ever seen a badger once before, lying lifeless by the side of a very busy dual carriageway. They aren’t very common in my neck of the woods – it’s massively overdeveloped and also our soil is distinctly clay-like, prone to holding water and not, I’d imagine, easy to excavate into smug, dry tunnels. I don’t blame the badgers for steering clear.

As a result I’d always been curious about these nocturnal creatures with their black and white mint humbug faces. I realised that I didn’t even know how big a badger was. The size of a cat? A dog? I imagined them emerging in the wee small hours well after dark, a glimpse of those white stripes and a dark silhouette being the best sighting a person could hope for of this mysterious animal.

So when I was offered the chance to spend an evening at an active badger sett, I leapt at the chance. Better still I learned that badgers usually emerge a while before dusk, giving me the chance to take some pictures. Which is why I found myself en route to the Peak District, having taken the afternoon off work. Driving through the fabulously named village of Sparrowpit, I tried not to get my hopes up too much. Nature is unpredictable, and there was no guarantee that the badgers would actually show themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of hours that I’ve spent sitting in the garden with my camera waiting for my usually regular as clockwork visitors to arrive, only for them to appear is if from nowhere the minute I’ve given up and gone back inside. It’s almost equal to the amount of times I’ve tried to photograph a new species and only managed to grab a blurry picture of a rapidly retreating animal rear end.

Walking towards the sett, my companion pointed out the badger pathways that were crisscrossing the field. I’d have mistaken these for human trails, but the grass was compressed evenly – a trademark pointer to badger, rather than human or fox activity as it shows where it’s low slung undercarriage has passed over.

As we got closer, we fell into silence. Living a primarily underground existence, badgers don’t see too well (they don’t need to), but their sense of hearing is excellent. As we settled down downwind of the sett – their sense of smell is excellent too – I tried to get comfortable, anticipating a long wait ahead. Predictably, at that moment the heavens opened – not for rain, but hail! After so many weeks of unrelenting heat it was actually nice to be outside in the cool evening air, hearing the (thankfully) miniature hailstones bouncing off my hood. The hail passed over within minutes, just as the opening act appeared – this cheeky rabbit who seemed completely unperturbed by our presence.

I managed to get a few shots before the rabbit suddenly seemed to go onto the alert. Glancing past it, I understood why. A badger had emerged and was snuffling around the ground outside the sett. It was still very light at this point – being about 6.30 in the evening, giving me the chance to get a few shots. Then, just for a second, the sun poked through the clouds giving me the chance to get this shot which I am really pleased with.

The badger continued to snuffle around the base of the bracken, until the cows that were further across the field wandered closer to us to graze. The cows had kept an eye on us since we’d entered the field, and us on them. Though they sounded really close to us, they were a good 50m away.

The badger though, retreated to the sett and resolutely refused to come back up when they were within earshot. I’d been advised to bring a book along in case of boredom while waiting, but there was little chance of that. There was the odd light shower of cooling rain, and a constant buzz as a steady stream of bumblebees motored purposefully overhead. Remarkably, there seemed to be a bumblebee nest in the bracken to one side of us, we were most definitely on a flight path back to the nest. I was amazed by this – badgers are well known for digging up and devouring bumblebee nests – bees, wax and all, so it’s astonishing that one was thriving so close to a sett.

Gradually the cows moved away and first the rabbit, then the badger re-emerged. There was one moment when the badger seemed to look straight down my camera lens, a pose that would have made a wonderful photo, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to press the shutter and break the spell. I must learn not to be so hesitant!

Then, as dusk became darkness proper, two smaller badgers came out from the sett entrance – this year’s cubs! After enjoying a noisy drink they started snuffling around in the bracken on either side of us. By this time, sadly, it was too dark to be able to take any pictures – but the sight of a small nose emerging from the bracken a mere metre away from me was incredible, and a moment I will never forget.

While the cubs busied themselves in the undergrowth we took the opportunity to slip away. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m hoping to be able to return to the sett next spring when there’s the chance of small cubs and longer hours of daylight. If you ever get the chance to visit a sett, I’d highly recommend it.

A Hard Time for Honeybees – and our Wild Bees too

For the first time since we began beekeeping 8 years ago, our Honeybees are showing signs of starvation. At the beginning of July we noticed that they’d begun removing the wax cappings from their Winter honey stores and begun to eat them. Each frame we removed during inspections saw lines of hungry bees head first in the cells, totally ignoring our presence as they ate.

Kersal Vale Honeybees, 2015

Normally at this time of year they’d be busy foraging for pollen and nectar, but they seem to have realised that there’s just not enough about. The effect can be seen on other invertebrates too – each time we open a hive flocks of Bumblebees and Wasps have started appearing too, attracted by the sweet scent of the honey within. Wasps do appear around beehives and try to rob them of honey, but normally this will only happen in early Autumn when flowering plants naturally begin to die back. Bumblebees are normally far too busy with their own bee business to bother beehives, but this year with the lack of food around it seems the smell must be irresistible.

Kersal Vale Honeybee, 2015

Our bees are sited on a large allotment site, where as you can imagine there’s normally a consistent food supply throughout the bee season. The allotmenteers grow a wide variety of plants and so at any point during the season there’s generally something in bloom – but it just doesn’t seem to be enough this year. The flowers seem to be dying back incredibly quickly in the heat and the lack of rain means plants in general are struggling. The apiary itself backs onto the River Irwell, the banks of which at this time of year are normally thick with Himalayan Balsam. This is an invasive species which needs careful management if it isn’t to become a real problem – it spreads like wildfire and outcompetes many native species – but has become an important and reliable food source for insects. It has very shallow roots though, so was an early casualty of the drought. The riverbanks are empty this year.

This means we’re in the unusual position of needing to supplement our bees’ food during the height of Summer. We’ve a few options to use – adding wet supers, frames from which the bulk of the honey has been extracted but which always have some remaining deep in the cells. We’ve also got a couple of buckets of honey which has slightly too high a water content to bottle, so they can have that too. And finally we can feed them with sugar solution, though this is the last option as being essentially pure sugar it isn’t as nutritionally balanced as honey.

Other than feeding we are leaving the bees alone as much as possible – we don’t want to put any unnecessary stress on the colonies. The bees seem to have adopted a low stress, low energy approach to life too, only doing what’s absolutely necessary. For example, there hasn’t been any attempt to swarm like there normally would be when the hot weather began.

Kersal Vale Honeybee covered in Himalayan Balsam pollen, offering her hivemates a taste of the nectar she’s gathered to encourage them to visit the source

So an odd Summer in beekeeping as in the rest of the natural world. And another odd feature to mention – this phenomenon seems to be incredibly localised. Beekeepers in our area are reporting similar issues to ours, but in other parts of the country bees are absolutely booming.

All this being said, I’m not too worried about our honeybees. My main worry is that what this signifies for our local native bees. Our colonies of honeybees will be fine, hopefully – we can feed them. The Solitary and Bumblebees in the area are not so lucky, and not long after noticing what was happening with the honeybees, I started to see problems with them too. We seem to be seeing a much shortened season for them compared to normal – last year I had Leafcutter Bees flying in the garden until September. This year, they emerged at the same point in the Summer but are already gone. At NQ Growboxes, there are far fewer bees than at this point last year. The common issue in all these places is the scorching temperatures and lack of food sources available for the bees.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have had on the local populations of wild bees. I’m hoping that, although the season is shortened this year, they will have had time to complete the breeding cycle. As always with these things though, only time will tell.

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.

Leafcutters in Action

I’d been quietly hoping for Leafcutter Bees to start using the bee hotels since I first put them up in 2016. I was seeing small Leafcutters such as the Patchwork Leafcutter Bee (Megachile centuncularis) foraging regularly, but there sadly were no takers for the residences available. That is, until last year. For the first time I’d put out a beehouse of my own making containing bamboo and drilled wood blocks, and the holes had ended up a little larger than those in my purchased houses. This seemed to have attracted one of the largest Leafcutter species that we have in the UK, the Wood-Carving Leafcutter Bee (Megachile liginseca).

This species normally nests in dead wood and are very particular about the size and shape of hole that they use – when selecting a place to nest they fly around an area, ‘auditioning’ any likely looking holes or crevices by climbing in and thoroughly inspecting them to narrow down the options. Once they have made their choice, they perfect the tunnel by shaping it with their powerful jaws. Loudly. The first indication I had that my Leafcutter had arrived were scraping noises coming from the beehouses.

I followed ‘my’ Leafcutter through the season and she was amazingly tolerant of me and my camera, often coming forward in the tunnels to investigate when I was there.

At the end of the nest season she’d completed 7 nest tunnels, so I was eagerly waiting for these to hatch when the Summer started. The males hatched first and spent their early days sunbathing on the top of the beehouses and waiting for the females to emerge.

A few days after the males, the females hatched out and once mated wasted no time in beginning to nest build. I quickly noticed the tell-tale circular holes appearing in various leaves around the garden, most notably the Snowberry which seems to be a firm favourite. They are using an incredible range of leaves in the garden this year, as well as in the gardens beyond.

For the first time this year I’ve managed to get some pictures of the Leafcutters cutting leaves. Still not the best pictures as they are incredibly fast, but am happy to have been able to capture this at last!

Unlike her mother, one of this year’s Leafcutters is an incredibly feisty bee. The minute she senses movement outside the nest tunnel she comes barrelling out to move the culprit on in no uncertain terms.

Others are more accommodating, and have let me get close enough to capture some shots of them finishing off the outer layers of their nest tunnels with leaves. It’s incredible to watch them carefully fold them into place.

At the time of writing, the Leafcutters have sealed a massive 22 nest cells. Last year our Leafcutter was around until September, and while I’m not sure that her offspring will manage the same – due to the hot weather there’s a serious lack of forage around and bees are starting to struggle – I’m hoping for a few more and a bumper Leafcutter year in 2019!

Recycling – Solitary Bee Style

Our resident Hylaeus (Yellow-Faced Bee) has finally stopped nesting in the Oasis house… and the new spot she has chosen is interesting to say the least!

She’s taken over a cell that has recently been vacated by a Mason Wasp who hatched out this year. I initially saw a small, black insect going in and out of the cell and assumed that it was another Mason Wasp, perhaps one of the smaller species, until one morning I saw this tiny face looking back out at me.

When she’d sealed the cell, it looked like this. Hylaeus bees use a form of resin to seal their nest cells which is almost transparent. It doesn’t photograph brilliantly but it’s to the right of the nest hole here with the Mason Wasp original mud capping still in place on the left.

After finishing this nest hole the Hylaeus moved to another (empty this time) cell in another part of the same beehouse. She seems very protective of her nest cells and is unwilling to leave them, even at night. I found her bent double in this almost finished cell – the only way she would fit. This didn’t look like the most comfortable position but she was still there the next morning!

I’m not sure how common this type of nest tunnel recycling is, but if anyone knows I would love to find out! I’ve noticed the Leafcutter bees re-using cells that have been vacated by Mason Bees – but they clear out every trace of the former occupants, whereas this Hylaeus seemed to be taking advantage of the tunnel size and shape left by the wasp.

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.

A Bumblebee Evicts an Unwelcome Guest

‘Mind your feet, there’s a Bumblebee walking around in the grass down there’. I looked down and so she was.

We were giving the garden furniture a much needed lick of paint when my husband noticed the bee. She was struggling through the grass and every so often attempting to fly. Taking a closer look, I noticed the reason for her struggle. She was carrying a large something. A large, white, wriggling something – a Wax Moth larva.

There are two species of wax moth in the UK – the Greater and the Lesser Wax Moths. The Greater Wax Moths predates Bumblebees, the adult creeping into the nest after dark when she is less likely to be noticed and laying her eggs. When these develop into larvae they feed on the wax construction of the nest itself, as well as pollen and other nest debris and the developing bee larvae. This activity starves the bumblebee nest of valuable resources, and often hastens the decline of the nest.

The Wax Moth larvae usually stay safely entwined within a network of rubbery, silken fibres that they weave around the nest. This serves to help them evade detection by the bumblebees and also protect them as the bumblebees can’t penetrate it. All in all, they are a very unwelcome guest and I can completely understand the bumblebee’s determination to get this one as far away from the nest as possible. I’m just sad to say that I think that this one came from my garden nest in the garage wall that I have been watching through the season. I thought that the nest had been declining in activity lately and this might be why.

The larva was clearly heavy, as the bee managed to lift off briefly a few times before plunging back down to earth. Pictured from the side you can see how large the larvae are compared to the bees – imagine picking up a thin, heavy weight that matches your length. Oh, and for added difficulty it is wriggling all the time in an attempt to escape. I managed to take a short video on my phone which shows how much effort the bee was expending.

Half way across the lawn the bee clearly decided that she was far enough away from the nest that the larva wouldn’t be able to make it’s way back, and unceremoniously dumped it on the ground. Where it was promptly grabbed and eaten by a baby Blackbird. The circle of life in full effect!

Garden Round-up – June 2018

I’d forgotten just how busy I seem to get in Summer. Not only is the beekeeping season in full swing, but insects are everywhere, meaning I have loads of photos to sort out and process. Normally there’ll be the odd rainy day where I can blitz through and get things sorted and a blog post or two written – but not this year it seems! I’ve never known a dry spell like it. It’s now July 12th and we haven’t seen rain for a month, a state of affairs unheard of in Manchester! The soil is so dried out that it’s both like sand on the surface and rock hard and compacted underneath. The grass and plants are crying out for a good downpour – there’s only so much I can do with a watering can.

Perhaps trying to escape from the heat I found a frog hiding in the Frogitat! This sits in a shady corner between the ponds and I cover it in leaves each autumn to provide a handy spot for hibernation. I’ve never seen a frog using it in Summer though, until now!

I also keep finding frogs all around the garden at the moment. I think they are trying to find moisture and cooler temperatures wherever they can – crossing between the ponds and hiding under the hedging on the opposite side of the garden.

I suspect the heat this year has led this particular unwelcome visitor to expand it’s range. I’ve never seen Horseflies here before, but they’ve become a common visitor this month, plaguing me while I take photos of other insects.

I also spotted the garden’s first Ruby-Tailed Wasp of the year. These beautiful creatures patrol the South-East facing wall that part borders the garden, partly I think for the warmth and partly because that’s where the bee houses are. For these pretty looking creatures have a darker side. They use their downward facing antennae to seek out the nests of solitary bees and wasps, which they then parasitize. Sneaking into a nest left unattended, they lay their own eggs within it. Once the egg develops into a larvae it will eat the developing solitary bee before hatching out during the next summer. There are several species of Ruby-Tailed Wasp in the UK, and while I have found them in the garden each year and even spotted them exploring the bee houses, they never seem to nest here. I can only assume I don’t have the type of bee they require.

After seeing their success at NQ Growboxes, I planted an Ox-Eye Daisy last Autumn. It started flowering at the beginning of the month and has attracted a whole host of species, including a Leafcutter bee and the garden’s very first Colletes (Plasterer bee).

I was also hugely excited to find my first ever male Yellow Faced Bee in the garden – Hylaeus hyalinatus, or the Hairy-Faced Yellow Face Bee. I first noticed him skittering around the Pieris, and occasionally stopping to sunbathe on a leaf. On a couple of early mornings I also found him roosting in the beehouse.

Also during early mornings the ornamental thistles served as a hotel for sleeping bumblebees that had been caught out overnight.

While later in the day I was able to identify the garden’s first ever Cuckoo Bumblebee, the Forest Cuckoo bee (Bombus sylvestris).

While still sore about the early departure of the Red Mason bees this year, I was happy to see that Osmia leaiana, our Orange-Vented Mason Bee had completed her first nest cell. Instead of capping their nest cells with mud, these bees use chewed up leaves to form a kind of plant mastic instead.

Shortly afterwards, the Wood Carving Leafcutter bees (Megachile ligniseca) began to emerge from the bee houses. First came the males.

Then the females, who quickly began to cut leaves to construct their nests.

Shortly after this I spotted our first ever Sharp-Tailed Bee investigating the Leafcutter bee nests. I’m hoping this is a sign that we have a healthy Leafcutter population this year!

Finally while dead-heading the thistles (they love being dead-headed and will happily flower all Summer if you do this) I found this unusual looking caterpillar belonging to the Vapourer Moth.

What a stunning looking creature!

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.