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.

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.

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.