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.
‘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!
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.
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 -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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been the second Bank Holiday weekend in a row where we’ve had gorgeous weather, so it was a great opportunity to spend some time in the garden.
On Sunday I constructed a makeshift hide out of potted plants and trees on the top patio and sat out for most of the day with my camera. This got me a little bit closer to the bird feeder and the change of angle meant that the background was a lot more pleasing to the eye (taking photos from the kitchen window catches the brick wall of the garage as the backgound) –
I also had a great view of the bird bath and was pleased to get my first ever picture of our regular Coal Tit visitor. He’s normally in and out of the garden in a flash, shooting from the hedge to the feeder and back again in seconds. I also hadn’t seen him use the bird bath before so this was a real treat –
The bird bath was busy for most of the day due to the heat. I have to say I was slightly jealous at this point – I was so warm that I’d have loved a human sized pool in the garden.
The first fledgling Sparrows were out and about too. They aren’t too sure about the bird bath yet, having a quick dip and then retreating to perch on the garden furniture to dry off.
The Bumblebee nest is still going strong, though I am slightly worried about the Red Mason bees. We started off this season with 22 completed nest tunnels, and yet now the Mason Bee season is starting to end we only have one completed nest tunnel. I have to say I’m a bit upset about this as I was sure we’d have loads of completed nest tunnels based on the amount of bees we had this year. The majority of them seemed to disappear over a weekend and left nest tunnels half completed.
I was watching the bee houses when I noticed activity in a house that so far hasn’t been used this year. At first I thought it was an early Leafcutter bee, but Twitter informs me that we are hosting our first ever Orange -Vented Mason Bee (Osmia leaiana). These bees seal their nest tunnels with plant mastic – essentially chewed up leaves, so I am eager to see a completed nest tunnel.
She’s to be found mainly pollen gathering and drinking nectar from the Cornflowers in the garden. They must be her favourite as she visits them all in turn several times a day.
So all in all, very much a weekend of mixed fortunes.
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?