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!

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 Leafcutter Diaries 3 – Balsam Days

One day while watching our Leafcutter, I realised that her behaviour had subtly changed.  Usually her foraging trips were short – she would leave to collect pollen and nectar and then return only a couple of minutes later.  Now her trips were 15-20 minutes long, and when she returned she’d started to land and rest near to the beehouse for a couple of minutes before resuming her nest building activities.

Her appearance had also turned a touch ghostly.

36110089515_f6285fdccf_k

Despite her now distinctly mouldy looking appearance I didn’t panic – I had seen this before in honeybees.  Our Leafcutter had found a patch of Himalayan Balsam somewhere.

Himalayan Balsam is a striking, pink flowering plant which grows to about 2m in height. It was introduced to Britain in the 19th century as an ornamental plant.  Unfortunately it is now one of the UK’s main invasive plant species.  It very quickly colonises and overcrowds native species, killing them off.  Despite it’s pretty appearance, it’s a bit of a thug – our apiary backs onto a riverbank where Himalayan Balsam grows, and each year we find strands of it growing straight through the concrete apiary floor.

Balsam

It’s very common on waterways – it is found on all of Lancashire’s main rivers.  I don’t have a major river near the house, but there is a brook about ten minutes walk away – this would also explain the increased length of our Leafcutter’s foraging trips.

At first thought, it seems odd.  Why would a bee expand so much energy flying to a plant some distance away, when there were perfectly good alternatives nearby?  One of the reasons that Himalayan Balsam is so successful in dominating other species is that the nectar it produces is so beloved by bees.  Given the option they will choose Himalayan Balsam over most native species of plant.  And when entering the flowers to get to the nectar, they are covered in the plant’s white pollen – which they then take to another Balsam flower.  Therefore Himalayan Balsam has evolved to ensure that it is very well pollinated – at the expense of the nearby native plants which suffer decreased pollination and therefore slower growth as a result.

While not a notifiable invasive species like Japanese Knotweed, it’s now widely recognised as a problem and parks, nature reserves and estates try to keep it under control by holding ‘balsam bashing’ days.

While I’m not the greatest fan of Himalayan Balsam for the reasons outlined above, our Leafcutter certainly seemed to be thriving on it.  She very quickly finished another nest tunnel.

35512408840_073e766da6_k35731013362_a614bb5823_k35060849274_06b0bfb497_k

The Leafcutter Diaries 2 – 8th July

I’d seen ‘our’ Leafcutter roosting in the beehouses for a few weeks now, but tonight was very happy to see that she’s started nesting there!  As I went out into the garden after work one night I saw her going to and from the beehouse, returning each time clasping a section of leaf before taking it into the tunnel.

I grow a rose bush in the garden especially for Leafcutter bee nesting material – I’d read that rose leaves are their preferred choice when constructing nests.  I’d been watching this carefully to spot any signs that it was being used with no joy, and each trip the bee made to fetch leaves was very short – with only a minute or so between her leaving the beehouse and returning.  So where was she going?

It didn’t take me long to find the answer.  About 6 feet away from the beehouses is a Snowberry bush, and this showed the tell-tale signs that a Leafcutter bee had been at work.

34952356153_7eb9a70a4e_k

That night I also managed to get a shot of our Leafcutter bee-hind, which meant that from this and her size I could finally identify her as a Wood-Carving Leafcutter Bee (Megachile ligniseca)

35721645916_d0296159cf_k

I staked out the beehouse over the weekend and managed to get a shot of her bringing a leaf back to the nest.

35678801741_346dc5b21e_k

I thought she must be getting close to finishing this nest as she seemed to be ‘auditioning’ new tunnels in between completing the current one, flying around the front of the house to view all the options and popping in and out of tunnels for a closer look.

Then by the end of the weekend, she’d finished!  Leafcutters always seem to like to finish a nest off by sticking a full leaf to the front for a final flourish.

DSC_1044

 

Leafcutter Diaries 1 – 21st June 2017

Every evening when I get home from work one of the first things I do is head on out into the garden.  I love to potter around for 5 minutes of so, filling the bird feeders and checking out what’s been going on – it gives me some much needed reprieve after a long day at work and busy commute.

Today as soon as I opened the door I could hear a strange crunching noise coming from the bottom of the garden.  I headed down there and found the source of the noise at the beehouses.  One of the houses I made this year was a bit of an experiment and uses dry plant oasis as the nesting material.  It was this house the sound was coming from.  I made myself comfortable and waited.

As it happens I didn’t have to wait long before the culprit emerged – a Leafcutter bee!  She was entering each hole and chewing them to make them precisely the right size for her.  Every couple of minutes she’d back out of the hole, pushing the ‘spoil’ out behind her as she went.  I ran for my camera and managed to get a couple of shots but the combination of the dull evening light and her frantic activity meant that these weren’t the best.  All the same, I wanted to record this.  We’d had Leafcutter bees in the garden before foraging, mainly the smaller Patchwork Leafcutter bee (Megachile centuncularis), but this was the first time I’d ever seen one near the beehouses.

35450432395_ac19e65df6_k

This Leafcutter seemed larger than the normal foragers though.  I knew there wasn’t much possibility of being able to ID her (she had to be female as the chewing is nesting behaviour) due to the amount of oasis she had stuck to her body.  I’d just have to hope she found the accommodation on offer acceptable and decided to stick around!

34608849074_69d9afb664_k