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.

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.

NQ Growboxes – late April to Mid May round-up

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?

My City Patch

I’ve just realised that I’ve never written here about my other patch that I visit at least once a week. This one isn’t where you might expect – it’s in the very centre of Manchester, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Station.

On the edge of some wasteland used as a car park sits NQ Growboxes, a small allotment project for city residents who want some space to grow.

I’m lucky enough to have this amazing space 5 minutes walk away from my office, and discovered it one day when out walking at lunchtime during late may last year on a day when I was thoroughly cheesed off and just needed some space.

It was the dragonflies and damselflies I first noticed. Being so close to the canal they use the growboxes as a roosting point and hunting ground. Then as I examined the flowers more closely I realised they were absolutely covered in bees. Very unusual bees in fact, tiny Hylaeus or Masked Bees. I’d only ever seen these a couple of times before and never managed to gain a decent photo. I knew I had to return with my camera.

Of course I discovered the site on a Friday, but I couldn’t wait to return. On my way to our apiary in Salford the next day I took a small detour and toured the growboxes with my camera for an hour.

I was chuffed to manage my first half decent photo of a Masked Bee. They are seriously tiny – the larger species are 5-6mm long and they are very, very fast.

I was also thrilled to see my first (and to date only) Sharp Tailed Bee, a klepto-parasite of Leafcutter Bees.

From then I’ve visited the boxes at least once a week. I learned that the most numerous Hylaeus bee on the site is Hylaeus signatus, the Large Yellow Faced Bee, which is nationally scarce and so a special thing to find.

I was able to spend a lot of time with this lovely little bee over the Summer, and eventually got some great photos. I have to say that chasing them around has greatly improved my photography and fieldwork skills!

I was also pleased to find a male Wool Carder Bee in a lavender bush one day. Again, this is still my only sighting!

By the end of the Summer I’d counted at least 15 bee species there. Some can’t be identified to species, for example these beautiful metallic Lasioglossum (Furrow) Bees.

There are 4 species that look almost identical and they can only be identified properly via microscope, but as they were the first species I’ve seen in April this year and the last I saw well into September last year I’m pretty sure they are different species. No single species of bee has that long a flight time.

NQ Growboxes bees 2017 –

I’m looking forward to seeing what I can find at the site this year. I’ve seen the first bees arrive there this week and as it’s earlier in the season I’m confident the species count will be higher this year.

It’s not just all about the bees and dragonflies either. The boxes are home to butterflies, wasps and numerous other insects, while birds swoop overhead. I’ve never visited the site during the evening but I’d be amazed if there weren’t bats.

Even after the bee season had finished, I’ve still visited the growboxes each week to see what’s going on – often accompanied by the resident Wren.

I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful spot so close to me. I love being able to access nature in the heart of the city and during the long working week. It’s also a brilliant hotspot for wildlife and shows the value of brownfield sites for nature. We must treasure places like this.