By Karen McCartney – County Recorder for aculeate Hymenoptera for Greater Manchester and recorder/verifier of aculeate Hymenoptera covering Greater Manchester for GMLRC (Greater Manchester Local Records Centre) and LWT (Lancashire Wildlife Trust)
In a recent survey by Lancashire Wildlife Trust they found that 99% of those who answered valued connecting with nature during the recent lockdown as ‘very important’ with 67% saying they valued nature and visited natural areas much more in that time. We are seeing and noticing the natural world around us more than ever before with lots more people turning to social media wildlife groups looking for answers to what they find. Here I will list 12 of the most common bees and wasps you can expect to see in this area of Manchester and hopefully you may spot a few while using Highfield. All photos were taken using my phone camera and I will give some tips for getting the best results yourself, which we hope to see on the Bee Sanctuary Movement social media pages.
(There are over 270 different species of wild bee in Great Britain with vastly different life cycles and habits, including flight period. You may not see all of these species or behaviours at the same time of year)
The tree bumblebee is a relative newcomer to Great Britain, first recorded here in 2001 on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border and has spread right the way through Great Britain since. One of the first bees we see in spring and has two brood cycles a year in many parts of the country so can be seen through to the end of summer. Easy to identify with the dark ginger thorax, black haired abdomen with a white tip to the tail. This species also has a dark form but even in the darkest individuals there will be some hint of the ginger hairs on the thorax.
The red tailed bumblebee is another bee we see in early spring. Easily identifiable with it’s silky black hairs and bright orange tip to the abdomen. Males are slightly different with a yellow band across the thorax and a neat, yellow mustache. I usually see queens early in spring but have to wait a while until I start to see the first tiny workers.
Buff tailed bumblebee is one of the most common bumblebees and another of the first species we see in spring. Easier to identify in queens, it has two yellow bands and the tail varies from a dirty white to very buff coloured. Seen from early spring onwards. Bees are cold blooded so need some warmth to be active and can often get caught out by a cooling of the weather during all seasons but particularly in spring. This causes them to become grounded and appear very slow and sluggish. It is perfectly normal and they do not need us to interfere but in this case this bee was grounded outside a busy supermarket so I scooped her up and found some dandelions nearby which she readily accepted. Many sites advise feeding bees sugar water but this is unnecessary. Flowers are always best. If you find a bee that is grounded and it is in a safe place then it is best to leave it alone and as soon as the sun comes out they will be on their way. If in danger of being trampled then move it to a nearby patch of nice, open flowers or pop it somewhere sheltered and it will be fine.
Tawny mining bee is one of our spring flying solitary bees. The females dig their nests in the soil and you can spot where mining bee activity is from the little pile of spoil next to a perfectly circular hole in the ground. Andrena fulva females are easy to identify due to their foxy red pile of hair covering both the thorax and the abdomen with black pollen collecting hairs (scopa) on the back legs. Very common in this part of Manchester and seem to prefer nest sites with some cover for shade.
Andrena scotica is another of the mining bees with a quite interesting habit of nesting. A fairly ordinary looking bee with a buff coloured thorax, fairly hairy abdomen and two-toned pollen collecting hairs or scopa. Another spring bee and one I get urgent help requests about each year due to their preference for nesting in aggregations and using a common entrance, usually behind brick or stone. Although a solitary species they will nest in groups (aggregations) sharing one entrance then will each tend their own individual nests in the earth that collects behind. They emerge suddenly, often in numbers and are sometimes mistaken for a honeybee colony that has moved in under doorsteps or garden walls. They do not cause any damage to the structures and do not need relocating and most people are happy to enjoy them after a quick explanation. Very common in this part of Manchester so one to look out for.
One of the Nomad bees. Nomada is a group of bees that we call cleptoparasites. They do not forage for pollen to stock their own nests, instead they evolved to let other bees do the work. Very striking bees that many people mistake for wasps with their hairless bodies and vivid yellow/black/red markings. They are brood parasites of mining bees so are on the wing around the same time as their hosts, sneaking into a well stocked nest while the mining bee is away and laying their own egg. Some Nomada adult females may destroy the host egg but usually it is the larvae of the Nomada that kills the mining bee egg in it’s first instar. Nomada bees are a fantastic indicator of a healthy population of mining bees in the area and are very good news!
Onto another solitary bee and this time we are moving into the really tiny end of the scale with Hylaeus – the yellow faced bees. Often overlooked due to their size these bees are mms long and do not carry pollen externally, they carry it in the nectar crop then regurgitate it back at the nest site mixed with nectar. Named yellow faced bees due to the facial pattern of the males which is more extensive than in females, these bees are mostly black in colour with very minimum yellow/white markings and sparse hairs on their bodies. They do not have scopa (pollen collecting hairs) due to the unique way they transport pollen to the nest. Often found buzzing away around the geraniums and chives in my gardens, males very busy patrolling looking for females. A late spring species here.
On to another of our very tiny bees – the Lasioglossum or ‘furrow bees’. Lasioglossum can range from honeybee sized to individuals just mms long and it’s the group of 4 metallic Lasioglossum species in the ‘morio’ group that I see most often. Although grouped in with the solitary species some Lasioglossum display a degree of eusociality. In spring a queen will emerge and her first brood will be workers. Those workers will then help her to raise a brood of males and virgin queens and in some parts they will rear a second brood also. Only mated queens over-winter and there is no outward difference between the queens and workers. In my garden I find the Lasioglossum in the ‘morio’ group happy buzzing around the chives and ragwort.
On to a much bigger solitary bee and an early summer flying species Megachile centuncularis – one of the leaf cutters. I have recorded this species at Highfield as well as another of the Megachile species and they have been using one of the bee hotels there which is fantastic news! A fascinating bee, Megachile cut leaves with their powerful mandibles to take back to the nest and create their nest cells from. A stocky bee that differs from most bees in that it carries pollen back to the nest using a brush of hairs underneath the abdomen and in Megachile centuncularis this pollen brush is bright orange. See if you can spot them flying back to the nest carrying a section of leaf under their body. It looks to me like they are on little magic carpets, but you have to be quick, they don’t hang around!
Now on to my favourite insects – wasps! I will start with a wasp I’m sure everyone is familiar with and that is Vespula vulgaris – the common wasp. The large, social wasps often get a bad press and that is due to a change in their behaviour around the end of summer where they come looking for sweet juices from us and have no concept of personal space. There is a good reason why they do this and why they do not pose a problem for us at other times in the year. Social wasps are hugely beneficial pollinators, pest controllers and recyclers. Their importance in a healthy ecosystem cannot be stressed enough. In spring a single queen that mated the year before emerges. She replenishes her lost body fats from her winter sleep and finds a spot to build her nest and then carefully begins to raise her first batch of workers. Once these workers emerge they take over the hunting trips and she becomes nest bound, her only role is to then lay eggs. Adult wasps are sweet feeders, but their larvae need protein to grow so during the first part of the year workers are out hunting small insects, flies, caterpillars, all of the insects we see as pests or make growing crops difficult. They take this catch back to the nest and feed it to the growing larvae who break it down into sugars and reward the adult wasp with a sweet liquid. This continues until around late summer when the nest reaches its climax and worker brood production switches to producing the sexuals – the males and virgin queens who will found their own nests the following year. Once the sexuals are produced the nest starts to dwindle and the worker wasps find themselves with no brood to care for or nest to upkeep so start to look for sugars elsewhere. That is when they find our picnics. Often you can leave a sweet offering a little bit away from your food and they will be content with that (or a small piece of ham or chicken if during brooding season). Wasps are visual insects so will often give you a good look over but will head on their way if ignored. Wasps can be very defensive around their nests and should always be respected but I also think revered.
On to a different kind of wasp and my particular forte – the solitary wasps. The first wasp I’d like to introduce is Ectemnius – one of the wood nesting wasps. Medium sized wasps with vivid black and yellow markings and a big, square head. Ectemnius is a gardener’s friend and stocks her nest with hoverflies and other large flies and is an impressive sight watching them return to the nest site carrying their catch underneath their body. Check out any places you see dead wood in a sunny aspect from June onwards and you may be lucky enough to find them. Unlike their larger, social cousins these wasps are unassuming and solitary. They do not display the same defensive behaviour as the social wasps around their nests and can be safely observed closely.
Last but not least is another of the wood nesting solitary wasps I see commonly here is Crossocerus. Crossocerus are very small and usually mostly black but do have black and yellow individuals here in the UK. Many are just mms long and prey consists of Hemiptera or ‘true bugs’ which include leaf hoppers, aphids and plant hoppers. Another gardener’s friend and easily overlooked but numerous at Highfield where there is dead wood in a sunny aspect and another one to look out for. Look for them from June onwards.