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!

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!