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.

Weekend Round-up, 26th-28th May 2018

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.

Weekend Round-up – 19th/20th May 2018

From the continued good weather and lack of rain you’d think it was already Summer!

I’ve noticed that over the past week one of the male Bullfinches has been visiting the garden on his own – I’m hoping that this means that his partner is looking after eggs somewhere. I’d be beyond thrilled if they bought their young to the garden to feed.

We’ve also had our first young fledgling visit the garden. I was taking photos one evening after work when I noticed movement on the back fence…

And it was this little fluffball! I think it may be a Dunnock.

The first Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) workers have finally started to arrive. They are late this year, but then I am still waiting for the Cornflowers to wake up! I like to think these are the daughters of the Queen who I found with her head in the Solitary Bee House all those weeks ago.

A couple of Starlings have started to visit daily and seem to have made it their personal mission to help me run down my stock of suet balls.

I adore Starlings. They, and Sparrows, are the garden birds I have the most vivid memories of as a child. I clearly had a thing for brown birds, though I’m not even sure a Sparrow counts as a brown bird with that iridescent sheen and those white flecks.

Finally, a new visitor to the larger pond. I’ve been silently hoping for dragonflies and damselflies to start using the ponds for a while so was incredibly happy when I saw a familiar skittering movement out of the corner of my eye on Sunday afternoon. I turned to see a female Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) perching on one of the plant stems.

She stayed for a few hours and kept moving from leaf to leaf. I hope she’s chosen this as her territory, or better still was laying eggs here. I guess that in a couple of years I’ll find out!

Weekend Round-up – 12th – 13th May 2018

The garden is continuing to burst into life now that Spring is finally here!

The first workers have started to emerge from the Buff Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) nest in the garage wall. They’ve found a really good pollen source somewhere – they are bringing bags of it in. I’m really looking forward to being able to watch this nest at close quarters over the summer.

There was another big Mason Bee emergence on Saturday, still only males so I am presuming that the females will start hatching out soon.

I was honoured to see that my all time favourite bee, the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria) made a visit to the garden! This appeared last year, predictably just after I’d driven all the way to Brockholes nature reserve to see them! It’s a beautiful bee with black and white stripes. I still don’t have a decent picture of one, so I hope it comes back.

I was also pleased to see another Orange Tailed Mining Bee on one of the new clematis we have just put in – I think she approves!

And another unidentified Mining Bee hanging out on the trellis. I need to find a way to create a suitable habitat for them to nest in here!

On the mammal front we were supervised during an early morning gardening session by a Field Mouse I have nicknamed Ferdinand. I haven’t managed any daytime pictures of him yet, but I have managed to capture him on the trail cam.

Bumblebee Nest Box Project

The latter parts of last Winter felt like a long old slog. We had several snowfalls from December through to Match and while I love snow and those half light Winter days, I found myself impatiently waiting for the first signs of Spring. In preparation for when the warmer weather would eventually arrive, I decided to start work on my beehouses and habitats in the garden.

My first project has been a Bumblebee nest box. It’s a bit of an experiment. Last year I was the grateful recipient of a bird box containing a nest of Tree Bumblebees who had taken up residence in my Mother in Law’s garden. Tree Bumblebees, despite what their name suggests, are famously adaptable and will nest just about anywhere they think looks comfortable – one nest was found in an old tumble dryer outlet hose! They seem to love bird nesting boxes –

This has the added benefit that they can easily be moved if they are inconveniently situated.

I’d enjoyed watching the comings and goings from the nest box until the end of the season. When the new Queens emerged and the nest died out, I missed them. I wondered if there was a way that I could encourage them to return to the garden this year, and maybe set up home?

Bumblebee Nest Box Project

You will need :

– A bird box. Mine comes from Wilkinsons – their boxes are good value and I use them as the basis for many of my bee habitats.

– Some garden moss

– Animal fur (optional). Mine was loose fur kindly donated by my cats after I’d combed them.

Firstly choose the site where the nest box will be placed. It needs to be somewhere where the bees won’t be disturbed and the nest box won’t be subject to vibrations. Tree Bumblebees live quite happily alongside humans but on rare occasions they have been known to act defensively if they feel their nest is being threatened. So choose your site carefully – mine is placed on a wall right at the back of a flowerbed, at a height of around 7 feet from the ground.

Double check that the bird box fits securely on it’s fixings, so it is flat against the wall and won’t blow around too much in the wind. This can be a problem in my garden which is a bit of a wind tunnel, and I sometimes have to reshape the holes on the back of the bird box slightly to make sure they fit properly on the nails used to hang it.

Collect your moss – there is no shortage of this in our shady garden after winter. Let it dry out for a few days so it isn’t damp when it goes into the box.

Once your moss is dry, place it and the animal fur if using into the box. We are trying to make it feel like the box has been previously used as a birds nest, which seems to attract bumblebees. Screw the front onto the box and hang, and wait to see if it attracts visitors.

I couldn’t believe it when, just a couple of days after hanging my box I saw a Tree Bumblebee Queen going in and out of it! After a few days of furious activity, it all went quiet again so sadly I think something must have happened to the Queen. I hope that as one Queen found the box and liked it enough to start nesting, others will – so I will be keeping an eager watch for the rest of the season. Who knows, maybe one of last year’s Queens will emerge from hibernation and find it?